Sunday, August 30, 2015

Judge and Jury

“You’re about as easy as a nuclear war.”
           -- Duran Duran, 1981

He wandered around the planet for 75 years. He had at least three wives, one of them my grandmother. He fathered at least four children, one of them, my father. 

Jesse Ellsworth Matson II died alone of cancer on December 8, 1981 at Valley Medical Center in Fresno, California.

With the assistance of a friend practiced in the fine art of online genealogical sleuthing, I have been able to fill in many blanks in my grandparents’ timelines as I research and write a book illustrating the effects of an alcoholism gene that wreaked havoc through generations of our family.

I’m turning up more and more actual, real truth. This is important, since alcoholics tend to be really good at avoiding it.

Within days of this photograph, the family was no more.
This photo was taken in Anchorage, weeks or even days before my grandmother packed up my 9-year old father and boarded a transport ship bound for Seattle, just a couple months after Pearl Harbor. It was to be the last time my father saw his father. 

Do the math. Jesse Ellsworth Matson II lives another 40 years. Zero contact with his son.

Does he compartmentalize his life? Wall off his emotions? Does he even feel?

From 1931 to 1956, he gets around. He voyages down the Mississippi River from St. Paul to New Orleans in a houseboat with his first bride, my grandmother (my father is conceived en route). New Orleans to Washington state on a motorcycle with a sidecar for his increasingly preggers wife.

During the Great Depression, he’s a surveyor with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers (Grand Coulee Dam in Washington, Shasta Dam in northern California, airfields near Anchorage).

He lived also in Spokane, Minneapolis, back to the Gulf Coast at Galveston, Bemidji, Minnesota, overseas working for Bechtel International Corporation in colonial British East Africa (today’s Yemen), back to the Texas Gulf Coast yet again, uranium prospecting on the Colorado Plateau near Moab, Utah. 

As of right now, I have a big hole in his life from 1956 Uranium Miner in Moab to 1981 Stiff On a Gurney in Fresno (my caps – chapter titles, maybe?) 

In writing this book, I can’t help but go back to what I deem as essential, baseline stuff. The injustice of child abandonment; what I hope is my own personal righteousness – especially as it relates to my grandparents.

Reviewing the treasure trove of material gleaned from the online sleuthing, one entry hit me hard. A job reference from a former employer:

“Biggest weakness – if this is a weakness – is his impatience with other men in his organization who do not move as fast as he does.” 

His son was the same way. And his grandson. I was fortunate to recognize this defect of character and take conscious steps away from it.

My sense is Jesse Ellsworth Matson II did not. My sense is he was not given to introspection. He doesn’t strike me as the type of person you’d want to do nice things for.

These new-found stacks of truth are also expanding the universe in terms of the breadth of the book. The more facts I learn, the more the behavior becomes plausible. Check out this letter.

Walked away from a steady gig with the Army Corps of Engineers to get rich quick, searching for uranium at the dawn of the Atomic Age in the heart of a Cold War? There’s a chapter. At least. 

Alcoholic self-obsession tends to color everything. Since I never knew him, I base my assumptions and conclusions on the evidence and then apply my own knowledge (read: experience, strength and hope.) 

Judge and jury of a man’s life. 

I hope and pray that I am worthy.

JEM II 2-26-56


Saturday, August 15, 2015

Drawing Conclusions

'Cause I've got a pocket full of dreams. 

     --Russ Morgan & his Orchestra, 1938

The woman on the far right is my grandmother, Victoria Bonita Maday. The guy in the middle, with the glasses, is my grandfather, J. Ellsworth Matson II, who went by Ell. The little boy seated on the ground is their only son, my father, J. Ellsworth Matson III. His parents called him Champ. (No clue who the others are, camp hangers-on?)

I am reasonably confident this photo was taken in 1938, near Kennett, California, where Ell was surveying land for what would become Shasta Dam, north of Redding.

One of the challenges inherent with writing a book in the ‘creative non-fiction’ genre is the due diligence required to nail down the non-fiction. My father, now 83, inherited a crapload of these photos from Victoria and he recently loaned them to me.

Maybe it’s not as much about what you can see, but what you can’t.
When the shutter fell on this photo in the redwoods of northern California, Ell was 32, Victoria, 27 and Champ was 6. Victoria and Ell were married in the Twin Cities seven years before this photo. Three years after this photo, Victoria would leave Ell and Champ would never see his father again.

Victoria would be running not only from her husband, but the truth about herself.

Married in 1931, a houseboat honeymoon down the Mississippi River, where Champ is conceived. In New Orleans, they sell the houseboat, buy a motorcycle with a sidecar and strike out for Spokane, Washington.

A young man’s dreams.

In Spokane, Ell learns a trade – land surveying – and finds work with a construction concern building FDR’s Depression-era reclamation projects. The work will take to them to the western reaches of the continent: Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona, Alaska.

They lived in tents with wooden floors. At Coulee City, a few years before this photo, Champ has a memory of gathering splinters in his backside as he scooched along the floor before learning to walk.

What can you learn from a photograph? For one thing, I see where I got my hairline. Maybe it’s not as much about what you can see, but what you can’t.

This life reflected Ell’s disposition. Life was one big camping trip. Adventure. Let’s have fun.

They had plenty of tangible, beneficial nuts and bolts knowledge, like how to pilot a houseboat down the Mississippi, but utter ignorance of the alcoholism – and its insidiousness – which would impact the family for generations.

When the fall came, Ell was ill-prepared. He had no reservoir of knowledge. He had no ‘book smarts’ about his own psychological and emotional makeup.

He had no spiritual well from which to draw. It’s not that he didn’t believe in God, he just never thought about it much. As a result, he became convinced his own judgment, his own will was not only enough for him to make his way in the world, it was more than enough.

A helluva lot more than the rest of these poor bastards he encountered eking out an existence in the throes of a Great Depression. 

There was comfort and ease in what turned out to be misplaced confidence.

Freedom of the river. Freedom of the open road. Freedom of the redwood forest.

I know best. I believe in myself.

So I have the photos and I’m drawing conclusions.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Royals Then and Now

When I think of the summer of 1980, three distinct memories spring to mind.

George Brett chasing .400. 

Jimmy Carter chasing Ted Kennedy around a stage.

And me, chasing a dream to break into broadcast news.

After a year as the all night deejay at KAKE Radio in Wichita, at the tender age of 22, I was promoted to the “second shift,” and would spin the adult contemporary hits of the day. Reached the point that summer where if I heard Olivia Newton-John croon “Magic,” one more time, I thought I would surely lose my mind. 

Same with Elton John and Little Jeannie. Ditto the Commodores and Still. And how can we ever forget Teri DeSario’s smash 1980 duet with Harry Wayne Casey? (K.C. without the Sunshine Band). Yes, I’m Ready.

To throw up, thank you very much. Thirty-five years later, the earworm lingers.

Tried to sneak some genuine rock ‘n roll into the mix once. Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders Brass in Pocket. Caught hell from the “Music Director,” another deejay a few years older than me whose job it was the police the rest of us to make sure we adhered strictly to the carefully-honed adult comtemporary playlist.

When April hit, my record spinning came to an ignominious end. Matson’s dulcet tones vanished from the airwaves in favor of Denny Matthews, Fred White and the Kansas City Royals Radio Network. My job was to play local spots when the network threw it to the affiliates, and listen for Denny or Fred’s top-of-the hour station identification cue.

When Denny or Fred would say, “This is the Royals Radio Network,” I sprang into action, cleared my throat, keyed the microphone and intoned, “It’s two minutes after eight o’clock. Clear skies, 93 degrees in the Air Capital. You’re listening to Royals baseball on 12-40 K-A-K-E, Wichita.” 

As the season wore on, I took some 22-year old liberties. “...you’re listening to the Royals hammer the Blue Jays on 12-40 K-A-K-E, Wichita.”

“...dismantle the White Sox...” 

C’mon, I only had 10 seconds. Hadda make the most of it. 

This season reminds me so much of 1980. Now, and then, it seemed like the Royals won every night.
 
Royals Stadium, Kansas City. August 17, 1980
As the season wound down in September, I’d landed that first broadcast news job. Chased my journalistic dream to Hays, Kansas. Started on a Monday, reading radio news, covered a school board meeting on  Tuesday. Anchored the TV news that weekend. 

Carter chased Kennedy all over the platform at Madison Square Garden at the Democratic National Convention, hoping for an arms-raised-together money shot that would never come. That very same night in Kansas City, Brett went 2-for-4 against Baltimore, lifting his average to .389.

Five days later, he caught .400. 

Kennedy had loftier notions in mind that hot August night at the Garden, and he had no way of knowing it, but he could very easily have been talking about my love of a baseball team. In 1980 and in 2015.
 
The work goes on.

The cause endures. 

The hope still lives.

And the dream shall never die.  

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Sex, Drugs and Rock 'n Roll

Carry on my wayward son. There’ll be peace when you are done.
       --Kansas, 1976

Shared memories with a soulmate over soup, salad and breadsticks.

In the late 70s, Duck and I were reciprocal touchstones. Through life’s ups and downs, through each others romantic pursuits – requited and unrequited, through all the uncertainties and missteps wrapped up with being 18 to 21 years old, Duck and I embodied the definition of friendship.
  
We had each other.
  
We met at Mr. D’s IGA in the Sweetbriar Shopping Center in Wichita. I sacked, carried out and stocked Smucker’s Grape Jelly on shelves. She womanned the courtesy booth, sold postage stamps and counted the money. At 19, Duck got me a second job as a lunchtime waiter in the swanky Wichita Club high atop what was then the Vickers/KSB&T Building downtown. Today it’s the Executive Centre.
  
We drifted apart the way young upwardly mobile professionals did in the 20th century. Moving and shaking our way to career success. We re-connected the way people do in the 21st -- Facebook. 

Everybody in our clique had nicknames. Hers preceded her to the supermarket. They called me “Michael J.” Duck wore headscarves reminiscent of Stevie Nicks. My platforms and polyester smacked of Travolta.

Five constants in our lives, cyclical and interwoven: Parties. Night clubs. Music. Mood-altering substances. Work.
  
A couple of bites into the salad, we’d each named people from those days no longer around. As in dead. Another friend who got knocked up, had the baby and named her Rhiannon. Wherever she is on Earth today, Rhiannon’s gotta be pushin’ 40.

Sheesh. 

Parallel trends discovered by the second breadstick. After we lost track of one another, for each of us came the subsequent slow realization that trouble may be lurking.

The 80s would be a decade of dark clouds and denial. Duck married a kid I went to high school with. He was killed in a car wreck just months after their wedding.

Ouch.
  
Michael J. and Duck. 40 years later.
Today, Duck’s a hotshot banker type and I do what I do. But that stuff’s ancillary. Neither of us lead with our career anymore. We no longer confuse professional success with personal growth. Like me, Duck keeps it pretty simple these days.

We’re on a long river, whose tributaries began in the shiny hopes, dreams and naiveté of young people. We led ourselves into temptation. Delivered ourselves to evil’s front porch.
 
We’ve both always believed in God. I remember some pretty cosmic conversations back in the day. Back then, the active practice – and even consideration – of faith was tamped down a layer or two beneath the self-obsession.

For each of us, faith is much closer to the surface today. We recognize the gifts, the signs. We need no longer be whacked upside the head with a 2 by 4.

Regrets? 

Not one. 

Through all the broken hearts, the angst, the trouble, the shoulder crying, there’s no getting around one pure, undeniable fact.

We had fun. Those were, in fact, the days.

As we travel the broad highway leading inevitably to the precipice of middle age, our hard charging, emotion-infused, live-for-the-moment days of wine and roses are but fond memories. 

What changed? Maybe we grew up. 

By the time the check arrived, we’d reflected on those years not so much as drama, but as life experience. Every party, every youthful indiscretion, every circumstance adding up to understanding, wisdom even. The magic stamp of legitimacy. We survived. We’re still here.

Why?

Duck and me are confident there’s a reason. Today, we’re content not having to know what it is.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Counterculture Kid

You say you want a revolution. We all want to change the world.
- Beatles, summer 1968

Surely my parents had an inkling of the experience that awaited their three young children half a continent away in the summer of 1968.

We lived in Wichita, Kansas when my father was accepted for a summer-long physics/astronomy fellowship from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at the University of California.

The old man was always one for adventure and maybe he thought a summer of counterculture was just the ticket for three Kansas kids who were becoming proficient at negotiating the mean streets of Pleasant Valley.

Goodbye Wichita. Hello Berkeley.

If you were to select a single place as the epicenter of an American social, cultural, generational, anti-war revolution in the summer of 1968, it would be Berkeley, California.

Just a couple of weeks before we got there, at what became known as the Vietnam Commencement, 80 percent of the young men graduating from Cal took an oath to dodge the draft. The students left town for the summer, leaving the radical hangers-on, hippies and summer fellowship families in the neighborhoods near campus. Our apartment was in the heart of the action on Ellsworth Street, a block away from Telegraph Avenue.

I remember one neighborhood flower child had a DuBois fired up pretty much every time we saw her.

"Kansas. Groovy."

Shortly after we hit town, RFK was killed in L.A. We watched the news on our rented black-and-white television with rabbit ears.

Berkeley sit-in. June 1968.
June 28, two days before Mom turned 33, all hell broke loose. Some 2,000 young people rallied on campus in support of kids just like them in France, who were trying to oust DeGaulle. (If the sentiment is global, does it lend an air of legitimacy?) The crowd spilled out onto Telegraph Avenue and closed it down.

John Law freaked out. The fuzz fired tear gas and the kids countered with rocks. A full-scale street war, replete with flaming barricades, curfews, hundreds of arrests and a general civic unraveling for three days.

Happy birthday, Mom.

My Dad and I were on the balcony of our second story apartment grilling burgers when a cop pulled over and hollered at us to get inside -- it was past curfew. We did. The cop left. We went back on the balcony.

Grilled burgers trump curfews handed down by The Man.

It still floors me that our folks let us pretty much run free in this environment. Or maybe they were just smart enough to realize the protesters weren't child snatchers. All they wanted was political revolution.

Your blogger in 1968.
On our way to kids' programs at the public library, we'd walk past Black Panthers membership recruitment rallies. They wouldn't let me join.

Sigh.

On weekends we'd cross the Bay Bridge to San Francisco, or traverse the Golden Gate to Sausalito in our 1967 red-over-white Volkswagen microbus. We'd tool through Haight-Ashbury in that VW bus and look right at home (well, except maybe for the wide eyes, Brylcreem and Keds.)

As we were traveling back home to Wichita, more cops busted more heads in Chicago at the Democratic National Convention.

Back in the safe, predictable environs of South Pleasant Valley Elementary in Wichita, my 6th grade teacher singled me out on the first day of school in late August, 1968.

"Mike? What did you do on your summer vacation?"

Gather 'round, kids. This may take a while.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Manson Delivers

It was a setup from the getgo.

The Regional Distribution Manager (his caps) sat in our living room weaving a tale of wealth and riches. The folks knew this guy from church. Our neighborhood needed a new paper boy and it seems I was a likely candidate.

Subtly wooed.

I could pull in as much as 25 bucks a week delivering newspapers. In 1971, that was some serious coin for a seventh-grader. To earn it, the Wichita Eagle needed to be on the front porches of Pleasant Valley by 6 a.m., seven days a week. The Wichita Beacon by 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.

And if I learned a little about responsibility along the way, all for the good.

My first morning on the job was a Sunday. Up at 4 a.m. with my brand new front-and-back
white canvas bag emblazoned with bright red lettering: WICHITA EAGLE-BEACON. HOME DELIVERY. The thing was friggin’ huge. It damn near swallowed me up and this was before I loaded it up with papers. At 13, I was not exactly a hulking specimen. The growth spurt was a couple years away.

Approaching the street corner where the papers are dropped, my eyes get bigger and my heart pounds faster. Anxiety creeps in. Panic close on its heels. Standing before me are four stacks of newspapers. Each up to my chin. Turns out the combined Sunday edition of the Eagle-Beacon is a behemoth, as dailies go.

Who knew?

Later, I got up even earlier and using my bicycle, strategically positioned the stacks along the route where I could re-supply without having to backtrack.

Effective and efficient.

Back then, paper boys were actually in charge of physically picking up the subscription fees. Door-to-door. “Collecting,” in the parlance of the trade.

Get up. Throw the Eagle. Go to school. Throw the Beacon. Eat dinner with the fam. Collect. Repeat.

One little old lady on the route with rapidly fading faculties was a predictable chronic pain.

“Collecting for the Eagle-Beacon.” My standard line, while leaning on the doorbell.

“What? Who’s there?”

“It’s Mike Matson, your trusty neighborhood paper boy, and I’m collecting for the newspaper.”

“Manson?”

Every week the same thing. “Manson?”

Every week I had to convince this lady that I was not a crazed California killer with a cult-like following bent on starting an apocalyptic race war. Just a 13-year old white boy from the ‘hood tryna earn a buck.

Helter Skelter, lady. You owe me two-fifty.

I threw papers for a couple of years and then moved on to higher-paying gigs. Passed the paper route on to my brother.

All yours, David. Tell the old lady over on Carlock you’re Manson’s kid brother.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Critical Mass

Father Anthony Elzi mentioned sin and forgiveness in his homily. She had no way of knowing it, but surrounded by a church full of faithful parishioners, his message was aimed at an audience of one.

Her.

By the time she landed on her knees during Sunday morning Mass at Corpus Christi Catholic Church in Colorado Springs in the autumn of 1957, Victoria Bonita Maday Matson harbored a nagging fear that perhaps she was beyond redemption.

Victoria at 19 (Fairmont, Minnesota, 1930).
In this book I’m writing, my father’s mother blew through a few Sacraments on her alcohol-fueled spiral to rock bottom. At 19, her marriage to my father’s father started out idyllic, but soured. Ten years, several abandonments and other sordid experiences later, a transport ship evacuation of women and children from Anchorage, Alaska in the days immediately after Pearl Harbor was her escape. 

Back on the mainland, Victoria was a single mother in a male-dominated culture. Her 1940s were consumed with poor choices and decisions. (More in the book).

But her younger sister introduced her to a compassionate priest in Colorado Springs and over time, Victoria re-constructed a life which culminated in a career as a social worker.

As a pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic, the rules were clear. Her belief was intricately intertwined with her interactions with the church. So for my grandmother – recovery was belief, then action, with the help of a human intermediary.

My own experience is flipped. I’d proven to myself and to all around me that “no human power could have relieved” my alcoholism. I’m convinced God removed my genetically-inherited compulsion to abuse alcohol. When that began to sink in, then came 12-steps and organized religion, in the form of my wife’s Catholicism. The bottom line, boiled-down premise of each is, “trust God.”

God did not create religions, denominations, 12-step programs or governments. We, his children, did that. They change and evolve with the times. 

I belong to the Catholic Church because it means something to my wife. My Mom’s a Protestant. Pop grew up Catholic, but rebelled against the rules and his stiff-arming Rome is a defining moment in his emancipation from Victoria. (More in the book). 

Viewed from a few thousand feet, my Johnny-come-lately Catholicism seems a misnomer. Divorced Protestant. Strike 1. Pro-choice. (Roe v. Wade is my generation’s Obergefell v. Hodges). Strike 2. I support marriage equality. Strike 3? 

It’s not really ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ No one within the church hierarchy has ever asked me. If they did, I like to believe I’d be rigorously honest.

Victoria at 50 with her grandkids (Rooks County, Kansas, 1961).
Man-made systems adapt and change with the times. The times are defined by the human beings alive, well and plugged in to the life around them during the time they’re upright and interacting with one another on the globe. 

We’re God’s experiment. In the early 1960s, Vatican II was a reaction to cultural changes on the planet after the Second World War. My point is, the Catholic Church is not as dogmatic as some would have you believe. We can change and adapt.

Vatican III anyone? 

We’re all flawed. Walking, breathing imperfections. The essence of humanity.

And when I get past the system to the core of my belief, it’s pretty much me and God.  For Victoria, it was the system which led her back to God – the pre-Vatican II Catholic Church, with all its rules and dogma, which, on the surface should have turned her away.

But it didn’t. Because of one human being. Father Elzi got below the surface to the essence of the woman and saw a human being eager to confess her sins and repent.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Genetic Predisposition

So, I’m writing a book.

Literary non-fiction. The story of a man, a woman and their little boy. They were a family but the ties did not bind. I guess it’d be more accurate to say they bound for a little while, but unraveled.

Ell was 25 and Victoria, 19, when they fell in love and married in the autumn of 1931. For their honeymoon, they piloted a houseboat christened Bonita down the Mississippi from St. Paul to New Orleans.

A glimpse through the eyes of newlyweds at the start of the Great Depression. A look back in time into the heart, soul and psyche of a man already deep into alcoholism and his young bride on its cusp. A seat on the bow of a houseboat making headway on a course plotted due south.

Jim Matson, née Champ. Wichita, 2015.
Ell and Victoria were real people who were born, grew up, met each other, lived, loved and died. They led impulsive, obsessive, self-driven lives. For a finite period of their separate Earthly chronologies, they loved one another. Their only son, Champ, is my father.

Champ subconsciously planned his escape from the madness for years. Twenty-four hours after graduating Plainville High School, he joined the Navy and changed his name from Champ to James. Jim Matson’s 83 and for the last few months I’ve been interviewing him about his troubled childhood – which in itself is pretty revealing (another blog).

So why tell their story? Why me?

I share Ell and Victoria’s name, genetics and tendencies. Call it working knowledge, or better yet, insight, into my grandparents’ choices and decisions. I’ve made the same ones. I inherited their alcoholism.

I’m fortunate to have experienced a few moments of clarity in my recovery. One of them is the realization that I owe something to the next generation of our family. My son, niece and nephew. And eventually, if the trend holds, their children.

Will the illness prompt loss in their lives similar to mine, Champ’s, Vic’s and Ell’s? Because I love them, I hope not. Honestly, I’ve learned not to sweat it. For one very simple and compelling reason.

There’s nothing I can do to prevent it.

But I can share my experience and the history of our family, warts and all. Armed with knowledge about the insidious dysfunction wound tightly around and embedded deep within our DNA, will they make better, more informed decisions?

Can knowing the truth lead to solid life choices, peace of mind and happiness?
Champ, Vic & Ell. Spokane, 1938.

Here on Father’s Day 2015, my book consists of a working framework and three or four dozen pools of word vomit, fluctuating from varying degrees of omigod this is absolute crap to hey, that’s not too bad if I do say so myself.
 
Plus, I guess I figure if I telegraph the move here, it’ll provide impetus. If I’ve said out loud that I’m writing a book, a layer of motivation gets added. It’ll also provide blog content along the way. Everybody wants to read about an author’s trials and tribulations, right? Or maybe no one cares about the labor pains. They just want to see the baby.

Non-fiction because there’s much I know about them. When, where, what. Literary because I can apply my experience, not only in spiritual recovery, but everything that preceded it. I approach this effort fully armed with understanding and knowledge of alcoholism. How and why. 

Ell did not have that. Victoria did, but only after the damage was done. Champ doesn’t
drink, but look up Adult Child of Alcoholics.

The characters are not only real people, they’re my family.