I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son

BOOK: I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son
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Copyright © 2015 by Kent Russell

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House LLC, New York, and distributed in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto, Penguin Random House companies.


Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Random House LLC.

The following essays were previously published as follows:

“American Juggalo,” “Ryan Went to Afghanistan” (subsequently reprinted in
), and “Showing Up” in
; “Mithradates of Fond Du Lac” in
The Believer;
“Artisanal Ball” and “Island Man” in
The New Republic;
and “Say Good Morning to the Adversary” in
Tin House.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Russell, Kent.

[Essays. Selections]

I am sorry to think I have raised a timid son / by Kent Russell.—First edition.

pages     cm

978-0-385-35230-7 (hardcover)—
978-0-385-35231-4 (eBook)

I. Title.

6 2015



Jacket photographs by George Baier IV

Hand lettering by Janet Hansen

Jacket design by Peter Mendelsund


For all Russells everywhere.

“But now, Grandpa was always comin’ down on us. He said we weren’t ready for when life attacks. He called dad a nothing-master. And a bluebeard. And fatty-tatties. And he called me a playboy man-baby. That made me imagine a crazy magazine. Dad tried to call his old friends. Local wizards, I’m sure, masquerading as store managers. But he hung up the phone slow, and sad. Dad said, ‘The worst thing about living here is that you can only kill yourself once.’ ”


Write books only if you are going to say in them the things you would never dare confide to anyone.



On my eleventh birthday, my grandfather Alexei “Papa” Romanchuck crowned me with a standard-issue M1 helmet before an audience of my friends. “You’ll grow into it,” he said when the steel pot slid past my chin. “In seven years, I’m dumping you fifty yards from Virginia Key and seeing if you can’t swim ashore with this thing on.”

My birthdays were occasions for the men in my family to shower me with gifts from their branch of the military. My other grandfather, “Papa Lou” Russell, handed me a blue T-shirt with
lettered in gold across the chest. He’d left his job teaching high school science in Sarasota, Florida, to fight in the Pacific Theater. “Old Papa, he stormed the beach when he was eighteen years old,” Papa Lou said. To which Papa dutifully responded, “Well, those dirty Japs, they should be our slaves.”

My father left the kitchen briefly and came back in with two small cardboard boxes wrapped differently from the rest. He handed them to my best friend, Ryan, who was standing next to me.

Before letting himself steal a glance at the boxes, Ryan swept his gaze around the room, to make sure it was okay. More so than my other friends, Ryan was in awe of these men. He
looked from my nodding father to Papa, a blunt Russian who’d once had his marrow tapped by the cold of the Hürtgen Forest and so now was hunched over the kitchen sink, grumbling, a mild December draft blowing across the room from a window none of us assjacks would shut. Papa was shivering blue crab claws with huge, spatulate hands, the hands of a sapper who’d destroyed European bridges and built Eastern Airlines engines.

After him, Ryan set sights on Papa Lou, just as he was expeditiously dispatching my friend Filipe at a new set of Chinese checkers. Papa Lou had had a wife and three kids and was excused from the draft, but he enlisted anyway. He’d combed for mines in the beryl narrows between Japanese-held islands; “No sweep, no invasion” was how we used to greet each other. Presently, Papa Lou was hopping pieces—an endless zigzag Filipe followed like a tennis volley—while talking trash well beyond his foe’s linguistic ken.

Finally, Ryan returned his eyes to my father, who, years ago, had taken him in as a de facto son. A series of car accidents and an addiction to painkillers had left Ryan’s mother housebound; she rarely left her room except to stomp around late at night like a revenant. His father was a reformed hippie and failed movie producer; somehow he owned a high-rise condo in Coconut Grove, but little of his hustle money saw home. The rumor was that Ryan’s grandfolks were loaded. It remained that—a rumor. Sometimes an uncle checked in. But, otherwise, the boy was on his own.

“First, Ryan opens his presents,” my dad said.

I didn’t mind. Ryan and I did most things together. A few days before, we’d shaved each other’s heads, to cement our pact that when we grew up, I’d be a marine and he’d be a fighter pilot. People said we looked even more alike then—two peewees ripe with baby fat, grinning milk-teeth ramparts, our pale scalps shining.

Ryan tore at his favors. Inside: model planes, an F-14 and an F-16. They were brushed steel, weighty and detailed. He scaled them with flat palms, unblinkingly.

Then my father started the parade of gifts for me. He loved this. He’d leave the kitchen and walk back in theatrically, bringing with him old ammunition boxes and camo gear he’d bought at a surplus store he referred to as Earl’s House of Crap. My favorite, and the one I put on right away, was an olive T-shirt featuring a hideously grinning death’s-head. The skull had feathered wings with tips that curled up, as though flexing, and a streamer behind it that read

. More gifts followed—MREs, a compass, a canteen—before the grand finale: the
Marine Corps Common Skills Handbook.

He’s a small man, my father, about five-four and thickly built. He likes to joke that they only admitted him into Vietnam because he stuck lollipops under his heels. He seldom wears a shirt, and the sun has cured his skin poreless. His head’s horseshoe bald, with one tendril of graying brown hair lying across it. Until he gets upset, whereupon it falls next to his face and flails, always a step behind, like a gymnast’s ribbon. His gray eyes are very nearsighted; when he joined the Navy ROTC at Vanderbilt University, he had to memorize the eye chart beforehand to pass. By the time of his honorable discharge, he ranked a junior lieutenant. He captained the swift boat that would later become John Kerry’s. His orders were to stand apart and instead of a weapon wield his men like matériel.

My father never did weigh the pros and cons of becoming a sailor. In his time, service was expected of every young man. Especially so in our tribe. (After Papa Lou passed away, my father went through Lou’s cache of genealogical documents and found the records of one paterfamilias Russell: officer in the Continental Army, “the Little Iron Man” his affectionate sobriquet.)

So, my wanting to be a marine came as no surprise to the men in my family. I’d simply understood what they had: that dress blues awaited. There was but a single mold for me to fit, like how biscuit honey has its bear.

I chose the marines because they were always the first to fight, and because they were a part of the navy. Since I’d never been much of a boater or fisherman, I figured the marines might make up for my deficiencies in the eyes of my father. My father, whose gift of their handbook made me giddy. I wanted to read it all right there. The table of contents seemed to me a delineation of the things I’d do later in life. I flipped through it with Ryan looking on and everyone else dicking around with the rest of the gear. It had charts and diagrams explaining things like
How to Identify a Weapon of Opportunity, What Is the Responsible Use of Force?,
How to Apply a Splint to a Fracture.
I’ve kept it to this day, and I consult it often.

After cake, the men stayed in the kitchen to drink, and we boys retreated to the dining room to have our Nerf-gun war. The dining room was perfect: at one end was a large entryway with two walls to take cover behind, and at the other was a carpeted three-step staircase that made a serviceable trench. My mother threw a quilt over her crystal. Then it was on.

I took command of the trench, and Ryan the walls. We rarely hit each other. When we did, nothing happened, nobody died. Our war made more noise than sense. I stood to the side of the trench with my Nerf chain gun and belched foam arrows that drifted past the enemy in sad arcs. I would never notice Ryan until it was too late, when I’d see half of his face poking out from behind the wall, and
a dart right in the neck. It stuck there, fast, because Ryan licked the cups.

In 2005, both Ryan and I were living in Gainesville, Florida. I was enrolled at the University of Florida, and he was attending
classes at its feeder school, Santa Fe College. He lived across town in a house he shared with two brothers, casual acquaintances from Miami.

One night, while he napped in the living room, plainclothes police officers arrested the younger of the brothers in the front yard. He’d been selling marijuana from the house. As the police cuffed him, he yelled for Ryan. Ryan woke, saw men with drawn weapons approaching the house, and went for an AK-47 he’d purchased legally at a gun show a few weeks prior.

For a very long minute, there was a standoff. When the screaming subsided long enough for the men to announce,
Ryan threw down his weapon and was arrested. He was charged with attempted aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer with a firearm.

Ryan told me, “I remember standing there, just being in a Mexican standoff with everybody, how exhilarating it was. One of them asked if I was in the army because I had my hair short, and I was aggressive with the assault rifle, and I was behind cover. He said I made all the right choices. ‘What are you, in the fucking army or something?’

“Everything I did after that moment was boring. Everything I did didn’t mean anything. Everything was in slow motion after that. Nothing compares to the thrill of gunplay.

“I kept thinking about what that dude had said. I thought about how I could redeem myself. I was a shitbag. All I cared about since high school was drugs, alcohol, and tits. I didn’t care about anybody except me. My dad had spent forty thousand dollars to get me out of jail. He put the house on a second mortgage. I was going to trial arraignments without a job.

BOOK: I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son
8.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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