Coming of Age Fiction Drama

This story contains themes or mentions of suicide or self harm.

I grew up 3 miles west of Muscatine, Iowa. Most people have never heard of Muscatine and have no clue where it's at until they're told it's 200 hundred miles west of Chicago. I never met my grandparents. What little I know is from stories my dad told me. My grandparents, Jesse and Mary Mason, owned a 100-acre farm in the 1930s. Jesse Mason grew up in Harlan, Kentucky, with 3 older brothers. He quit school at 15 to work in the coal mines alongside his brothers and father.

 Jesse and 2 of his brothers, Bill and John, volunteered for the army when the United States entered World War I. His oldest brother, John, was killed in action in France, shot by a German sniper, and another brother, Gary, died in a mining accident just before the war ended. After Jesse and Bill returned from the army, they began making whiskey part-time. Demand increased because of prohibition, and in the 1920s, they quit mining to work full time at the still and make deliveries.

 Jesse met Mary at the local elementary school when he was in 6th grade, and she was in 4th. By age 21, he had saved enough money to buy a small cabin and ask for Mary's hand. She wasn't a fan of the illegal enterprise and initially turned him down. However, most of her friends had already married and knowing she would live better than most, she changed her mind. They married at Harlan First Baptist Church, and Mary became pregnant with my father, John, within a month.

Everything changed a year later when a new local sheriff arrested Jesse. He was given a choice: go to jail or leave town. Many men took the Hillbilly Highway to work in the auto industry, but Jesse's secret wish was to own a farm, and land in Iowa was cheap. Dad said Grandfather told none of his friends or relatives what town he was moving to, only that it was in Iowa. Dad wasn't sure why it was a secret. I've learned that sometimes it's good to leave your past in the rearview mirror.

Because of the depression, war, and only a single child to help work the farm, the land was slowly divided into 5 and 10-acre plots and sold until the only thing remaining was a 10-acre mini-farm with the original farmhouse and barn. When built, the house had no inside plumbing or electricity. Though it wasn't first-rate, both were added in the early 1940s. Like his father before him, Dad dropped out of high school. He didn't care for farming but enjoyed repairing the family tractor in his teens. He migrated to Detroit to work at the Chrysler plant that made tanks for the war effort. Later, this job saved him from the draft.

When Dad was 32, my grandfather died from a heart attack. Dad lived in Chicago and worked at Brach's Candy Factory as a maintenance man by this time. He quit his job and moved back home to help his mom. A year later, Mary died of a stroke after a full day of planting peonies, purple coneflowers, Black-Eyed Susans, and daylilies. He told me it was one of the few days he had seen his mom happy since his father died.

With the skills he learned at Chrysler and his experience as a maintenance man, he got a job as an auto mechanic at Morse Motors in Muscatine when he returned from Chicago. He wasn't a farmer but felt obligated to plant 5 acres of corn. The remaining acres were used for three horses, one for him, one for Mom (Sue Ann), and one for me. We had a Remington 40X rifle only Dad was allowed to touch. It was kept loaded and stored in my parents' bedroom closet. He was always trying to make Mom happy, but that was a hopeless cause. Despite the electrical and plumbing upgrade, the house was dilapidated and falling apart. Mom never let a day go by without complaining about the squeaky floors, ill-fitting doors, and drafty windows.

On my 10th birthday, Dad mounted a basketball backboard and hoop to the front of the barn. I was shooting hoops while not cleaning stalls and picking up beer bottles. In 7th grade, I tried out for the school team. I couldn't dribble well (not much dribbling on a dirt court), but I could shoot better than most kids, and I made the team. Mom wasn't happy because it interrupted her afternoon drinking when she had to pick me up after practice. Once, she parked in front of the school and continuously honked the car horn because practice ran over by 15 minutes. After that, I convinced a boy who lived about a mile from me to let me ride home with him and his mother. I would walk the remaining mile. Iowa winters are cold, and his mother decided she would take me to my house. To this day, I still think of that kindness.

After my mother died, I learned I was conceived during a one-night stand, and it was not my mom's first or last one. When I was 13, it wasn't a shock when I came home from school one afternoon to find all traces of Mom had vanished from the house. Most kids would have been devastated - not me. I was relieved not to hear the constant arguments at night or have to clean up the dozen empty beer bottles Mom left lying around the house every day.

She moved in with a man (Pete something), and I visited her twice a month for 6 months. Pete was kind and tried his best to have a relationship with me. In fact, he treated me much better than Mom, who, depending on her mood, gushed or ignored me when I came around. After an argument between Pete and Mom, Pete took me to Tom Bruner Field to watch the Muscatine Flames baseball team one afternoon. Mom and Dad never took me anywhere. He turned out to be too ordinary because he expected Mom not to go to bars and go home with other men. As Mom put it, "I had one husband. I don't want another." She moved out and into another man's house. She repeated this pattern several times over the next 2 years until she met Carl Cole, who had a bad temper and drinking problem like her.

Carl wanted to be part of a motorcycle club, which takes hard work and loyalty. Two traits that Carl was in short supply of. Instead, he hung out at The Muscatine Inn, played pool with the bikers, and pretended he had enough money to buy them a round of drinks. Carl felt important until the credit card bill showed up a few weeks later. Then he'd scream at my mom for buying me a pair of socks or a cheap shirt. Mom was afraid to move out, saying Carl was not the type to let her go, even if he hated her.

When I was 15, they moved to Cedar Rapids. It was an hour away, and Mom only called me twice over the next 2 years. Before they left, Carl gave me an old electric Silvertone guitar and a case with a built-in amplifier. He had traded some worn-out wrenches for it, hoping to learn enough to play in a bar band. He never picked it up and decided he didn't feel like cramming it into his old pickup for the move to Cedar Rapids.

"Here, asshole. You can have this damn thing."

In a rebellious moment, I didn't bother saying thank you. I know, not exactly a powerful act of disobedience. I also ponder if that guitar was a blessing or a curse. When Carl and Mom drove away, I stood watching, wondering if I would ever see my mom again. I didn't hate her, but I knew I wouldn't miss her.

* * *

My father had never been outgoing and rarely drank in his younger years. He got drunk the night he met my mom at Whitey's Inn (later sold and renamed The Muscatine Inn). Depressed over the death of his mother, 3 weeks before, he'd gone there to see a friend who played pedal steel guitar in a local country band. The guitar player's girlfriend had brought along a friend, Sue Ann. After 4 hours of hard drinking, Sue Ann and John spent the night together at the Hawkeye Motel. In the morning, they made no plans to see each other again, and each went their separate ways. Six weeks later, Sue Ann contacted John with bad news-I had been conceived.

Despite Sue Ann's adamant claim that she hadn't slept with anyone other than John in the past 3 months, John didn't believe he was the father. Through an act of kindness that proved to be a mistake, he married my mother when she was 5 months pregnant. John was 34, and Sue Ann was 21. Mom sometimes called Dad 'old man'. He didn't care for the name, which inspired her to use it whenever they argued, a daily occurrence. More than once, they fought over who named me Keith. Mom wanted to call me Carter, and Dad wanted Owen. I don't know why they cared because neither name was tied to a relative. Keith was a compromise that the delivery nurse suggested. So I became Keith Carter-Owen Mason.

Not long after Mom left, Dad and I quit riding. He sold the horses, the saddles, the bridles, brushes, and blankets. In the evenings, Dad drank a six-pack of beer while chain-smoking Camel cigarettes in front of the TV until he passed out after the 10 o'clock news. Dad said little about Mom leaving, but I think it was more disappointment than anger. Of course, I became the kid from a broken home, abandoned by his mother. I say that, but except for a few teachers, no one at school knew my mother no longer lived at our house. I kept quiet about it because I was embarrassed.

I stayed in my room, listening to The Beatles, The Byrds, and The Rolling Stones and practicing guitar. I was okay at it, considering I took no formal lessons and learned from songbooks. I and three of my classmates, a drummer, singer, and bass player, formed a band. In my barn loft, we attempted songs we couldn't sing or play. We sounded terrible, and I enjoyed every minute because it was the first time I felt I belonged to something. We never performed in front of an audience, but I gained three friends I could hang out with after school. That was three more than I ever had before.

I turned 17 on June 14, 1969, and Mom didn't call me and wish me a happy birthday. Two days later, the Cedar Rapids police called Dad on Sunday at 3 a.m. Carl and Mom lived in a rundown duplex, and neighbors had reported a gunshot around midnight. No one responded when the police knocked on the door. They entered the apartment to find Carl had put a gun into his mouth and pulled the trigger, but not before he had strangled my mother to death with her brazier. It was big news in Cedar Rapids but barely a paragraph in the Muscatine Journal.

Mom was originally from Beckley, West Virginia, and claimed she had no family. Dad paid for a budget funeral in Cedar Rapids for her. Though the obituary and funeral details were posted in the Cedar Rapids Times and Muscatine Journal, my father and I were the only ones to attend. It was a brief service in which the minister talked about redemption. I couldn't help but feel that Mother's redemption had never come in this life and wouldn't in the afterlife.

The trip back home started in silence. I tried polite conversation about Mom. I asked Dad how he and Mom had met and how long they had dated before marrying. If it was possible to do it over again, I would have kept my mouth shut.

In a soft voice, he answered, "You can't call a one-night stand dating. If that was the case, your mom had lots of dates with many men before and after we married."

 He went on, "Keith, you will always be my son. Don't let anyone tell you differently. I love you."

That was all it took to make me doubt who my actual biological father was for the rest of my life. Thanks, Dad.

When the story of the murder hit the news, I wasn't in school, and by September, it was long forgotten. I'm not sure if any classmates even knew the connection. If they did, they never mentioned it. Isolated in the country, my only friends were my 3 bandmates. We had driver's licenses, but none of us had a car. I only saw them once a week when their parents would drop them off at my house for band practice. With the horses gone, we set up the equipment in the empty hayloft of the barn and pretended to be rock stars. Dad had given up planting corn and sold the tractor. We joked about holding a barn dance with all the space, but never did. When we took a break, Dad didn't mind us using the Remington to shoot empty beer cans off old fence posts. I think we shot more than practiced.

Sometimes, a member would bring some homegrown pot to practice. I didn't participate because I saw my mom's life ruined by alcohol and Dad using it as a crutch. I thought addiction was in my genes. We joked about naming the group Straight Crooked Band. We never needed a name because we never performed in public.

* * *

I graduated from high school in May 1971, and to avoid the draft and getting sent to Vietnam, I enrolled at Muscatine Community College. My declared major was Automotive Technology. Dad thought I was planning to follow in his footsteps, but my only plan was to avoid getting shot.

Dad's first heart attack was on July 19, 1971. He was still working at Morse Motors and had just finished eating lunch. He was walking toward his toolbox when he collapsed. A coworker saw him fall and called the life squad. If it had happened at our home, he would have died before they arrived. Instead, they were there in 7 minutes and rushed him to the Muscatine Medical Center, where he was pronounced DOA. His first and last heart attack.

Dad wasn't overly affectionate, but I never doubted that he loved me. Twenty-eight years later, I still miss him, and I know I always will. I like to think he would forgive me for my mistakes after he died. He was a good man. However, organization and paperwork were not his strength. At least he had a will that named me as the sole heir. It's too bad he hadn't kept up the land taxes, still owned money on his 1968 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, and had taken 2 mortgages on the farm. I looked around the house and couldn't figure out what he had spent the money on. My car was his old 1962 Chevy Impala with 100,000+ miles on it. It looked like a smokestack when I could get it running. Starting my sophomore year, I worked as a grocery bagger at the local IGA and baled hay at farms near our house. I had saved enough for the first year of college but had even less reason to attend with Dad gone.

I needed to leave Muscatine and do something. What that would be, I had no clue. Before graduation, an Air For recruiter from Davenport, IA, came to our school, met with seniors, and gave a speech about the benefits of joining the Armed Forces. The Vietnam conflict was winding down, and the transition to a peacetime Air Force was well underway. Several times, he claimed new recruits could choose a guaranteed field of study. I thought there was no way in hell I would join the military.

On August 18, I drove to Davenport and met with Staff Sargent (SSgt) Banks. I was emotionally drained and needed little convincing to enlist. I chose computer operator because the term reminded me of the Star Trek television series I watched with Dad after Mom left. My induction day was set for Monday, September 20. I contacted a local auction company specializing in estates and told them everything needed to be sold, including the 2 cars, my 2 guitars, and a guitar amplifier. I hoped I would have enough to pay the mortgages and make a little money.

After buying a bus ticket to Davenport, I added $1,318.45 to my checking account. Not much to show for the 50+ years the Masons lived there.

September 02, 2022 19:26

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.


T.S.A. Maiven
03:01 Sep 13, 2022

This guy hasn't had it very easy, has he? I like the way you captured the adolescent tone. Good job with that!


Show 0 replies
T.S.A. Maiven
17:58 Sep 11, 2022

Sounds like he had a hard life. I feel bad for him. Good story overall.


Show 0 replies
RBE | Illustration — We made a writing app for you | 2023-02

We made a writing app for you

Yes, you! Write. Format. Export for ebook and print. 100% free, always.