My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys . . . and Judges . . . and Teachers . . . and Writers

grandpa on horse

A picture of my paternal grandpa, in his heroic cowboy days.

I wrote the following diary exactly one year ago. I never posted it, probably because I wasn’t yet prepared to share it. I forgot all about it until I was reminded of it by wendydavis’ wonderful diary about grandparents.


U.W., my employer and my very dear friend of 20 years, died a couple of days ago. He was in his 80s and he lived every minute of all those years. His widow asked me to help write his obituary. He was, at his core, a teacher and a mentor. Thinking about him made me reflect on how fortunate I have been to have had teachers and mentors who were there for me during the most critical times of my life. This diary is dedicated to them.

* * *

All four of my grandparents were teachers. Grandma C., my maternal grandmother, died in 2012, a few weeks after reaching the age of 100. In the late 1950s, she thought it was important to teach both English and Latin to the elementary schoolchildren in my tiny hometown in Nevada. In the 1960s, Grandma C. taught the children of California migrant workers in the Central Valley, spending weekdays and weeknights in a school that was located in the fields and only returning home on weekends.  Grandma C. taught me all kinds of things, including how to be a lady and how to make macaroni art. I’m still pretty accomplished at the latter.

Grandpa A., my maternal grandfather, was a rear admiral who was awarded two Navy Crosses as a submarine commander in WWII. He taught high school algebra when he retired. His fancy digs in San Francisco were decorated with exotic mementos of his world travels. Grandpa A.’s second wife, a Swedish bombshell named Esther, wore capri pants and those lucite high heel slippers with feathers. Grandpa and Esther were glamorous, they were devil-may-care; they put Yakety Sax on the hi-fi and started drinking at noon. When they rolled up to our house in The Middle of Nowhere, Nevada in their shiny new El Camino with a travel trailer in tow, it was like rock stars had come to town. They bought us ridiculous gifts. One Christmas, my little sister and I got a slot-car racetrack set that wouldn’t even fit in our living room. Grandpa A. taught me to think big.

Grandpa A

My maternal grandfather’s photo, taken from a Naval Academy yearbook which says that “no bull session is complete without his wit and volubility.”

Grandma R., my paternal grandmother, was also an English teacher in her younger years. Later she was a ranch foreman’s wife, the Assistant City Clerk, and something of an iconoclast. She taught me how to bake and how to sew and how to believe in myself (lessons my mother, the spoiled Navy brat, never cared to learn). In the late 1970s, Grandma R. sewed her own tangerine-colored disco pantsuit. Nobody else her age even dared to wear pants, not in our town. She wore that pantsuit to church and even insisted on being buried in it. She nourished my creativity every second of every day. Grandma R. never stopped believing in me.

Grandpa R., my paternal grandfather, the cowboy and ranch foreman who could balance on a saddle horn, was also a teacher, though unofficially. He had an eighth grade education but he taught me how to read and how to spell; I was the spelling bee champ throughout high school. I have vivid memories of sitting on his lap and sounding out ten-dollar words like “paraphernalia” in the evening paper. He let me help him with the monthly ranch payroll; I loved the mechanical noise the adding machine made. He taught me the names of all the ranch machinery (“harobed” is one I remember quite specifically because the man who invented it named after his daughter; it’s “Deborah” spelled backwards). He single-handedly captured two cattle rustlers in the act, made a citizens arrest and escorted them back to town, with his wife, daughter-in-law and two granddaughters in the car. Grandpa R. loved me unconditionally; he called me his “favorite blonde.” He saved my life.

My fifth grade teacher was an oddball, for her time. Mrs. H. drove a jeep, had a man’s haircut, and dressed like she was about to go on safari. She took us on field trips out into the Nevada desert to gather rocks. She showed us how we could look right out our classroom window and see evidence of the ancient lake that once covered our little valley. Mrs. H. was weird, like me. She taught me that it was OK to be weird.

My Creative Writing teacher in my senior year of high school in a little Texas town was also weird like me. Mr. S. set aside the standard curriculum and had us read Larry McMurtry novels for almost an entire semester—Horseman Pass By (which became the movie Hud); Terms of Endearment; The Last Picture Show. He made us write daily passages about our lives in a journal that we were required to turn in at the end of each week. For some reason, I trusted Mr. S. and I crept right up to the edge of writing about my real life. I didn’t come right out and tell him that my father had been beating me and sexually abusing me since I was five or six. I didn’t tell him that when I wasn’t making straight A’s, I was drinking and smoking pot. I didn’t tell him that one of my many high school sweethearts had gotten me pregnant and that I’d had an abortion a few weeks before graduation. But somehow, I told him enough; he knew I was struggling to be heard. His encouraging words lit a little spark in me and made me realize that I really could write and that I’d be able to tell my story—someday.

The generous souls at the weekly Dallas newspaper where I worked in the early 1980s taught me how to be a journalist. I answered their Help Wanted ad for a typesetter. I was 19; I’d had a few months of typesetting experience. The editor hired me on the spot and took me to lunch to celebrate at the dive bar they all frequented. The reporters, the photographer and the art director all took me under their wings and before long, I was writing for the paper. With a byline! A year or so later, Reunion Arena opened in Dallas and I got to write about the concerts and interview some of the celebrities who appeared there. The Oak Ridge Boys came to town to put on a benefit to prevent child abuse. As part of the story I was writing about their event, I had to interview a psychologist who worked with abused children. Coincidentally, my dad, stepmother and my four little sisters had just visited me and Mr. HFC, a visit that was filled with all of the fear and tension that had suddenly stopped feeling so normal. The walls were closing in.

I’d never spoken a word to anyone about the sexual and physical abuse I’d suffered. I was deathly afraid of my dad. I was certain my husband would leave me in disgust if he were to find out that he’d gotten such damaged goods. Before long, Mr. HFC pried the ugly truth out of me. Once his suspicions were confirmed, he told me he loved me, whisked me into counseling and reminded me that three of my four younger sisters were still living at home. My sisters. Holy fuck. It had never occurred to me that the same thing was happening to them. My newspaper colleagues busted out a few six packs and then held my hand as I rewrote my Oak Ridge Boys article to include my own personal experience (anonymously). And then Mr. HFC and I set about trying to rescue my sisters.

It took forever. The child abuse laws were awful back then. Because of the statute of limitations, what had happened to me hundreds of times didn’t count. We had to prove that the abuse was still going on. My dad, who had figured out the jig was up, called me at home and at work, threatening to kill me. When I didn’t call back, my dad hopped on a plane in Reno and showed up on our doorstep in Dallas in the middle of the night. That scared us away for a while, but ultimately, Mr. HFC and I moved back to Nevada, kidnapped my little sisters from summer camp and spirited them to the district attorney in our hometown. Eventually my dad was sentenced to prison. He spent eight years there—an eternity in those days.

That’s where my friend U.W., the one whose obituary I just wrote, comes in. I went to work as a writer and graphic designer for his company about 20 years ago. I was quite intimidated. U.W. was a retired judge and a Republican; most everyone at the company was. They all had lots of letters after their names. I was a loudmouth Democrat with no letters. But it turned out that the judge and I shared the same twisted sense of humor. He was the perfect audience for my Mad Magazine mentality. His enthusiasm for his business was contagious. The fact that he was in his mid 60s at that time did not deter him from learning how to use a computer. He was a father figure, teacher and mentor extraordinaire.

One day, I found myself in his office pouring my heart out about my dad, who had recently been released from prison. My dad was no longer quite the monster he’d been when he went to the Nevada State Penitentiary; he had emphysema and was so weak that he needed a wheelchair. But I was still afraid of him, and I was still angry and vengeful. I wanted to warn other people about him. I wanted to pass out flyers warning people that Chester the Molester had moved into their neighborhood. The judge listened very kindly and patiently to me. I was sure he’d tell me that was a great idea. But he didn’t. He told me I had to let it go. I took that under consideration and, many months later, I gave it a shot. And that’s a whole ‘nother diary.

R.IP. (Rest in Power), Uncle Warren.

13 responses to “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys . . . and Judges . . . and Teachers . . . and Writers


  2. Thank you, Bruce. The truth is out there, waiting for people to tell it.

  3. O, how wonderful to see you here and bringing us this diary, miz izzard. my sunday chores are seriously backing up, so allow me to come back in a bit. i am so proud of you for sharing such horrid abuses with us, and for helping to save your sisters. for now, for you, one of my favorite songs ever:

    you are a star in my life’s sky, darlin’ dear.

  4. Wow, that is a beautiful song. Thank you. I have to step away for a while too, but I’ll be back. In the meantime, this Luther Vandross song and especially the video make me think of dancing around with my grandpa; he’d let me stand on the tops of his boots. This is a massive tearjerker, so be prepared. The one that gets me every time is Damon Wayans picking up both of his grown sons in turn.

  5. thanks a lot for this.

  6. that sweet honey song literally makes me dizzy with the traveling of my essence or whatever you call it. and this one was very poignant. funny about one last times and saying goodbye and all. funny, i’ve had my mum in my dreams lately, and it’s been forever since that happened. my parents’ wonderful springer spaniels that steve and i inherited, too. funny.

    seems rather absurd to quote a character from one of my favorite authors, john irving, but…i will, since it seems relevant. as her boyfriend, later lover, was carrying frannie out of the glen in which part of the high school football team had just gang-raped her, dear junior dove pleads with her: ‘frannie, they can’t touch the you…in you’, over and over, and she chants it like a mantra that keeps the horror from touching her deep within, the place where she intuits that her power and true self reside. and that, i guess, was the essence of the song i chose, that we are exactly as they described.

    that you have been so long on the road reclaiming the you in you for yourself, and now will have encouraged so many others to see that possibility, as the truth bubbles forth is just so very wonderful, not to mention brave of you. who knows the impact of what we write online, and how far into the atmosphere is can spread? this was one of those, sweet mofo. yeppers, your grandpa taught ya how to think big. (not so sure about grandma’s macaroni art, though) :)

  7. That quote doesn’t seem absurd at all. Not at all. Thank you for that and all of the encouraging words.

  8. the quote resonated for me, but rather after the fact in my own life. my tormenters were more about degrading my worth with words, rather than deeds, if that’s not diminishing your experiences. i wonder sometimes which are more pernicious, again, excluding fathers or those in positions of trust, maltreating children sexually. pace, if this comes across wrong in any way. it’s nigh on to impossible to measure different sorts and degrees of woundings.

  9. The shame is the most debilitating aspect of abuse, apart from actual physical damage. The only source of affection in my life, apart from my grandparents, was my dad (he was capable of being appropriately affectionate). In my mind, the price I paid for that affection was tacit acceptance that everything he did to me was OK or at least was worth it. My choices were to face explicit, constant rejection from my mother or to sell another piece of my soul to pay for a hug or a kind word from my dad. Of course he had plenty of unkind ones as well, lest I think I had some value.

  10. jayzus; what a trade off, between the devil and the deep blue sea. literally. damn, i hope know how much we all love and value you, hfs.

    i will add that the many messages of my inherent failures and unworthiness were so imprinted on me, that i experienced a major health crisis back in the day from trying to do ‘good deeds’ for too many people. once i tumbled, i saw that i didn’t think i had value just sittin’ on the shelf. the memory of that was partially what led me to posting that ill-fated diary ‘we are.’ ironic, eh?

  11. Dear hfc, my maternal grandmother, the only grandparent I really knew as the others had died before my time or when I was an infant – she raised me and was the finest person I have ever known, quite probably half maori, part orphan and her early years shrouded in mystery. Her tale, kept from us by anxious-to-be-not-ostracized parents we have yet to fully uncover, but as we her descendants achieve parts of the story, her magnitude as loving, humble, wonderful grandmother only increases. Her story (with South Pacific motifs) is very similar to your own experience.

    Told or untold, such a story takes us to the very extremes of compassion and wonder and respect. It is not you who need to feel unworthy but the rest of us mindlessly treading our safe and ‘normal’ paths. I always knew there was something hidden and special about my Nana. Something special, and of great sorrowful beauty. Yet she was always smiling.

    Thanks, hfc; thanks very much. (I love that photo!)

  12. Wendy, yes, I do feel valued and I hope you to do. We all should have inherent value as children; when we don’t feel valued, I think we spend the rest of our lives trying to attain it, as if it were never there.

    Juliania, your maternal grandmother sounds like a wonderful person and I am so glad that you continue to find more about her to love. It’s kind of a trip what our parents may have kept from us, even when they meant well. My mother only told me the things about her parents that made her angry; once I was an adult and able to discover other qualities on my own, I was pleasantly surprised.

    That photo of my grandpa is extremely meaningful to me. I have very few photos or mementos of my grandparents or even of my own childhood. My mother threw most everything away (although a few years ago she tried to return my own childhood portraits to me, confirming that they were meaningless to her). My grandparents kept stuff but in the ugliness after my father went to prison, my wicked stepmother ended up with everything. There was a brief time when I was in touch with my half-sisters and managed to get a few family photos, including that one of my grandpa. It had been framed and hung in my grandparents’ hallway when we were kids. My grandpa had a brother named Bert who was a year or two older or younger. They looked so much alike that I once confused them and jumped into Uncle Bert’s lap thinking it was grandpa. There was a similar photo of Bert standing on a horse (sibling rivalry, I guess). Every old photo has to be closely scrutinized to determine whether it’s grandpa or Bert. That one is definitely grandpa.

  13. Well, i’m working on it. worthiness is still a bit ‘aspirational’. ;)

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