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WARRIORS OF A DIFFERENT CLOTH
I dream of fighting to the death … and as the dream progresses I grow accustomed to the idea of death and become comfortable with it.
—YAMAMOTO TSUNETOMO, HAGAKURE
A series of muffled thumps pulled me from my sleep. I was eleven or twelve, probably dreaming at that moment of big air on my bike. Perhaps soaring off a jump and flying several car lengths, and as high as a school bus. Half awake, I realized someone was in the garage, going through our stuff. The crashing and rummaging drew closer. I could hear movement in the dividing room between our kitchen and living room. I sat up.
An intruder was in our house and rummaging through our belongings. No doubt after drugs and cash.
I heard my dad rise from his bed.
Footsteps outside my door. Rushing.
Hollow thuds against the wall.
Then the terrified voice of a strange man and followed by his screams. Panicked screams.
I knew better than to go running out, so I cracked open the door to my room. Just enough to see.
Wearing only boxers and holding a police baton in one hand, my dad dragged the burgler behind him back into our house. He threw the stranger on the floor, and brought the baton down against the man’s shoulders with a sickening whack. Then hit him again.
My dad was a very formidable man. I was a child and naturally impressionable, but my father was powerful looking to me. He always worked out. He was Tommy Chong, from Cheech & Chong, the guy with the glasses, but yoked up, and muscle-bound, as if he did CrossFit for a living. The man standing in front of me with the baton possessed animalistic strength, and I was witnessing his power firsthand.
He looked up, saw me peering out from my door, and very calmly said, “Son, stay in your room. I’m handling this.”
I closed my door and went back to my bed and listened. I had little choice.
Dad kept the man out there for a couple of hours, beating him and talking to him in this calm voice.
I can only describe what I heard as vicious.
* * *
The guy would lose consciousness, and when he came to, my dad would beat him again, but this time in a way that wouldn’t let him pass out. I could hear him talk to the stranger about what was going to happen to his friends and his family.
I fell asleep by the time my dad loaded the man up in our VW Microbus and went and dumped him in the creek down our long street.
In the morning, I awoke to find bloodstains all over the carpet.
In the coming days there were homicides likely related to that night. I have no doubt my dad and his buddies hunted down some of the man’s friends and family. He wasn’t going to turn the guy in to the cops. My dad and his associates were always working in the shadows of the law. He visited all that violence on the intruder and the others involved as another sort of justice. He was going to force them to remember what they did at our house, but in a very horrible way.
With my dad, fighting and violence were right on the periphery. And from his perspective, you had to be fully capable of dealing with that violence. I was always learning from my dad, and the message I took away from that night was simple. Be ready for absolutely anything life throws at you in any given moment.
Growing up with this way of thinking affects me still. To this day, I’ll work out until I’m almost throwing up. I don’t know too many people in their forties who, every morning, work out in such a manner.
I learned from my dad early on to live this way. If a monster, right now, might break in to try to rape my wife and hurt my kids, I should be able to solve that situation through sheer will. Even if I have been mortally wounded, I feel like I should be able to project whatever violence is visited on me, right back—and in a very extreme way.
* * *
I grew up in a modest gray ranch house in a suburb of Dallas–Fort Worth. The exterior didn’t match the interior, you could say. A cookie-cutter neighborhood. Short metal fences. Kept-up lawns. Tiny little front and back yards. An elementary school right across the street. And in our garage, my dad’s Harley. Inside there was likely heroin, cocaine, weed, and weapons.
My dad was known as Big Roger. I was Little Roger. That’s how the name game seemed to work in our world.
Big this. Little that.
Violence was part and parcel of life in our house, and my early exposures to violence came from being around my dad. I was with him once on the road, and we stopped in our VW to refuel. While he pumped gas this weird trucker walked up to him and started talking shit. I couldn’t really tell what they were saying, but I sensed my father’s anger.
Big Roger finished refilling, put the nozzle back in the pump, walked over, and dropped the guy with a single punch. Then, like it was nothing, my dad went inside and paid.
When he came out I asked, “What was that about, Dad?”
As he turned the key and we pulled away, he said, “We just had a slight altercation. No big deal.”
There was another instance that stands out from my early youth. I was maybe eight years old and having a sleepover with a friend at the house. My mom came out of her room, all gussied up. As she left, I could somehow sense or smell the stress hanging about her. Then my dad headed out not long after her. He wore his leather Harley patrol jacket and his leather pants. He had his nightstick and an SS Luger on his hip.
There’s that song Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard recorded about Pancho and Lefty, where Pancho always “wore his gun outside his pants, for all the honest world to feel.” Every time I hear that song, I think of my dad. That pistol was there for the people of the world to feel him. He would ride around with it, for all to see. Definitely a junkyard dog.
I didn’t know it then, but even at that age, elements of warrior culture were being instilled in my mind. The intruder and the trucker had crossed the lines of respect. In the case of this night, the lesson was about both respect and loyalty. It turns out an associate of sorts made the misstep of hitting on my mom. The guy was really disrespecting my father with his behavior. That was the line the man had crossed, and he would pay.
One time our neighbor’s cat bit my sister’s hand. I was around six at the time; she was a couple years older. I don’t know why it was such a big deal, but I sensed my mom’s stress over this. She waited for my dad to get home, to see if she should take her in to the emergency room for a tetanus shot.
It was always a grand arrival when my dad got home. He would ride up into the garage, his Harley rumbling. I would yell, “Dad’s home!” When I heard that chest-shaking motor purring, I’d take off at a sprint for him. His return always marked one of the highlights of an afternoon. I enjoyed this race to greet him so much, but on this day Mom reached him first and told him about the cat. He headed into the house and came out with a can of opened tuna fish.
I’d been down the street. I raced up on my bike in time to see him swing his baton. Whack! The cat made one quick spin of fury, claws scratching the concrete, and went limp. He picked up the dead cat, carried it over to the neighbors, and shoved it into their mailbox. He started toward our house, then stopped. He returned to the mailbox, lifted the small metal red flag, and walked home.
That was the way my father handled life. An eye for an eye, of sorts. The fact that he would have to take my sister to the doctor’s office and pay a couple hundred bucks pissed him off. In his mind, the neighbors and their damn cat had crossed the line.
There you go.
I look back and realize how smitten I was with my dad all the time. As a kid, dirt bikes and BMX racing gave me a sense of freedom. Ever since I was little, I was really into working on my bikes. My dad and his buddies would tinker on their motorcycles in the garage, listening to Steppenwolf on an old record player and smoking weed. My dad built me my own little workbench, but he wasn’t bullshitting with a kid’s pair of pliers for me to work on my bike. I had real tools. I would completely disassemble the entire bicycle, down to the pedals, and put it back together. My father was always turning wrenches, and I was his helper. I possessed a rare skill at that age. I could look at a nut or bolt and know instantly whether it was standard or metric, and the exact-size wrench or socket needed. Just by sight.
I loved to hang out there with my dad and his friends. The bikers were mostly Vietnam vets; without knowing it, they romanticized my notion of brotherhood. I grew up in that world, so it wasn’t a contrived thing; this was more of a very sincere culture that chose to be disenfranchised from mainstream society. They lived a life that they felt was more truthful. Of course living outside of the law, with drugs and criminal activity, is destructive to our society, but these men who I grew up around had significant character. They had values they lived by, but those values were not the norm of what America was at the time.
I spent countless hours around these men and their stories, and witnessed a certain amount of violence. But also I think, more important, I grew up around a very structured set of principles. The way they lived was very real and tangible, and to be around this culture of men who had been warriors for our country in Vietnam, and had returned to become warriors of a different cloth, had a lasting impression on me.
I fondly remember sitting on my father’s motorcycle. When I was really young I struggled to climb up on the tall metal horse. Once, carelessly, I touched the inside of my leg to the exhaust pipe. In that instant a doughnut-size patch of my skin sizzled like a piece of bacon on a hot skillet. I’d burned the soft young flesh of my leg on that hot steel.
This might have my first experience learning to swallow swords. The white-hot pain hurt worse than anything I’d felt up to that point in my life, but I bit my lip. I didn’t cry out. I was worried. I worried he would think I’d shown my incompetence around his motorcycle, a machine so intimate to him. I told myself, You can’t let Dad know this happened.
I melted the inside of my leg but didn’t say a word.
Everyone says that no masters of the arts will appear as the world comes to an end. This is something that I cannot claim to understand. Plants such as peonies, azaleas, and camellias will be able to produce beautiful flowers, end of the world or not. If men would give some thought to this fact, they would understand.
—YAMAMOTO TSUNETOMO, HAGAKURE
You would think that growing up in an environment like that would be somewhat neglectful or harmful to a child. I guess in some capacities it was, but I always felt loved and I always felt safe. In terms of rules, we had a pretty open house. I could do whatever I wanted. For a young boy this was pretty cool. I could kick-start my dirt bike and rip through the neighborhood, ditch the bike in the woods, and then slip into the mall and steal Mötley Crüe cassettes. Then tear ass home. I was twelve and racing as fast as that Honda CR 80 could go, maybe a hundred miles an hour. I rode the shit out of that thing. The motor of the CR 80 at the time had a wide power band. They were two strokes, and fast with a lot of get up and go. Big Mike bought two of these motorcycles. One for Little Mike, one for me. Any time Little Mike got something, Big Mike made sure I did, too. The man took care of me like that. He might have been my dad’s boss, but he was like a second father to me.
I was no saint, but my older sister was a wrecking ball. A real wild child. A real fucking wild child. I have many fleeting thoughts of my youth, and looking back it was a weird world, for a kid growing in the midst of biker culture. But this was normal life to me. My sister was another story. She was involved in all sorts of rebellious activity, and to come from such an environment and be thought of as too rebellious? That was as caustic as you could really be.
This was the era of Black Sabbath and jean jackets, and for my sister: trouble.
She started selling—in junior high. In many ways we were more worldly, more adultlike, than high school kids in this day and age. We might have only been in junior high, but the life we lived was intense. We had to grow up fast.
My sister ran with a tough crowd. I was always impressed with that about her. We played football across the street at the school. I would watch the older kids, including my sister, play. I know moments like this were impressionable because of that younger-sibling relationship. Sometimes they would have me join in, perhaps just to hurt me.
Sometimes I would be forced into the game. I had to play, because if I didn’t I would be looked at as weak, called a pussy. The out-of-bounds consisted of a gnarly wall of thornbushes, which I risked getting tossed into with each snap of the ball. The big kids didn’t take it easy on me or my two buddies, Little Mike and Joey.
The one thing I had going for my well-being? My sister. She always had my back. She was protective. If someone messed with me, they messed with her.
My sister was tough, but not butch, and not a tomboy. She was beautiful, beautiful and tough. A deadly combination. Where the rocker women of the era, like Joan Jett, postured as if they were dangerous, my sister might really pull an ice pick and put it in your kidneys. She was that kind of hard. She walked that cutting edge of feminine: lethal and tough at the same time. She reminded me of my dad, though I, more sensitive, took after my mom.
My sister wasn’t one to be roughed up. One time, a kid named Brandon made the near fatal mistake of pushing her into the thornbushes. This was a chump thing to do during a football game, and in his defense he made the push out of desperation, too, after all, this was street football at its finest. These games were often bloody, with everyone scuffed up, and the game almost always ended in some sort of a fight.
My sister rose out of the thornbushes swinging her fists. Swinging and connecting with full-on punches. She beat Brandon’s ass. Beat his face down into the sunbaked Texas grass. Bad. I remember thinking that it was violent and primal.
She gave off this don’t fuck with me vibe. Forget chicks messing with her. Even guys skirted her path. She took after my father in that violent way. I could see her picking up a brick and smashing someone in the face with it and stand over them, taunting them to get up. She always had a presence with people, and because of her pugnacious reputation, I was always in her shadow. She might have only been two years older than me, but when someone found out who my sister was they would say, “You’re Tracy’s little brother?” Then there would be this pause, followed by a change in tone and deference: “Fuck, man.”
Then they would politely walk the other way.
Tracy was a force of her own. All of my friends absolutely worshipped her. When punk bands like Gwar would come to town, she would be hanging out with them, and everyone seemed to know her. She slowly became connected in a subtle and strange way to these famous people. But this was a rough and unforgiving world.
* * *
One of the unwritten rules in the culture I grew up in is that if one of the men my dad associated with sold drugs to us kids, or to anyone associated with our group of friends, and my dad found out, that would be a lethal mistake.
There were clear lines drawn. And clear penalties when you crossed the line.
In many ways I grew up in a lawless land where you needed to be constantly aware, to be present, and to pay attention to figure out what the rules were in order to survive. Paying attention to details kept you alive. I learned this from my father, but also from my mom.
My mom looked just like Cher, when Cher was hot. I got my looks from her; make Cher a man, and that’s what I would eventually become, I guess. As a young boy I liked watching my mother paint. She was into oils, and also brilliant with graphite sketching. I loved to sit and watch the paint from her brush create life. I observed how the images would take shape and form, and could feel the emotion and beauty coming out. I was young, and I don’t know what sitting there watching her did to my neurons, but I know it affected my brain development. To this day, my mother is very artistic; not only do I look like her, but I think much of my character is derived from her as well. She bestowed upon me the ability to draw and engage with my creative capabilities.
I loved her for her art and her beauty, but I didn’t know she was sharing her gift with me then, and showing me a path forward that I wouldn’t put in to practice until much later. There is something magical about watching someone talented bring an image of beauty into this world.
* * *
My mom and my sister share the same birthday. I was the only one in our family who knew that my sister planned to run away when she turned sixteen. Tracy was horrible at picking men, and she’d found someone to escape with.
The day arrived. To celebrate my mom’s special day, my parents and I went out to this Japanese hibachi restaurant where the chef would flip the shrimp and make the little onion volcanoes in front of the patrons. A seedy Benihana of sorts, Texas-weird. Underlaid on the wood counter was beautifully shellacked-over porn, really graphic porn. I can’t explain the place any better than that.
I knew that Tracy planned on leaving that night. The knowledge weighed on me. Finally, while we were eating, I couldn’t contain the secret any longer. “I don’t want to ruin your birthday, Mom, but Tracy isn’t going to be home when we get back.”
And she wasn’t. Just like that my sister disappeared. Off to an unknown and dark world. The two of us, despite having the same upbringing, were about to head off on very different life trajectories. One thing was certain. I always knew my sister could handle herself; this was in her nature.
Power can be destructive, but I’ve never worried for her. Ever.
Copyright © 2019 by Roger Sparks with Don Rearden.