My earliest memory finds me awakening in a rented house in Southern Pines, North Carolina, where we had moved so my father could attend paratrooper training at Fort Bragg. I clamber from bed and wander through breeze-kindled rooms in search of my parents. Walls tower on ferocious slants, but the house yields only musty furniture and a screen door filtering through its mesh a humid green morning.
I bang outside. A patchy yard shows me shrubbery, maybe hydrangeas. Beyond the yard, a strip of tarry asphalt meanders who-knows-where. No people. People have fled to realms
lost or privileged. Panic flails in my chest and throat. Cries for rescue issue from me as imploring bleats.
I have no words — hardly even a mental glimmer — with which to frame the sensation, but I am surely the orphan of a bizarre disaster: an overnight plague that dissolves the molecules of adults, a secret outbreak of parentnapping, the deployment of a ray that leaves property unscathed but obliterates people. Only I have escaped this catastrophe, suffering in my moot good luck a cruel abandonment.
Eventually, and probably quickly, my mother rescued me, but the memory of this orphan lostness endured through an otherwise happy childhood whose sole major disappointment lay in my parents’ divorce. I begin with it not because it traumatized me forever, but because I can recall nothing earlier and because the search for belonging and place surely marks every human life.
My parents, a happy-go-lucky country grasshopper and a tenacious city-of-the-plains worker ant, collided in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1942, when the farm boy came north as part of his military service and caught the pretty Nebraskan’s eye as one of thousands of invading servicemen. With her girlfriend Doody Leacock, my mother soon thereafter escaped to California for a vacation that turned into an extended stay when she and Doody got jobs in Los Angeles, Mom as a receptionist and PBX operator in the law offices of Stephens, Jones, Inch, & LeFever. Dad hunted her up there late in ’42, talked Mom into marrying him, and, to avoid California’s waiting period, took her on a packed train to Yuma, Arizona, where a Methodist pastor married them on January 9, 1943.
But let me backtrack:
Maxine Elaine Matison, the youngest of three children, was born in Ashland Nebraska, on August 3, 1920, the daughter of a barber, Herman Matison, and a taciturn seamstress and housewife, the former Ida Mae Hoffmaster. Maxine had a brother, Robert, six years older, who married well and became an oil-business executive, and a sister, Lorraine, three years older, whose move to Wichita after marrying an army captain from California would one day prompt Mac to seek work in that city. (Friends and family usually called Lorraine "Larry" and Maxine "Mac.")
Leotis Bishop (no middle name), the oldest of three kids, was born in Frye’s Mill, Arkansas, on December 26, 1920, the son of a logger, Lawson Payton Bishop, and a feisty transplant from Maypearl, Texas, the former Zelma Maxwell. Leotis had a younger brother, Frank, who died in his forties (Lawson had died fairly young, in 1936), and a younger sister, Geraldine, better known as Tootsie. Leotis, who later styled himself Lee Otis, and his two siblings grew up on a farm near Lepanto, Arkansas. Friends called him Sonny or Sonny-Man. When Zelma bought another farm near Harrisburg in 1937, none of her three children wanted to move there, regarding it as “the end of the world.” Sometime before the war, Zelma married a cousin of Lawson’s from Mississippi, William Cody Philyaw, whom I always knew as Grandpa Cody. Cody, in turn, always called me either Punkin or Knothead.
In the 1920s and ’30s, Maxine grew up the youngest Matison in a household that acknowledged the value of books. She read greedily, plundering Ashland’s Carnegie library and devouring everything from The Bastible Children to such hefty adult tomes as Hervey Allen’s hotselling Anthony Adverse. On the Nebraska plains, particularly in summer, what better way to pass the time? Herman, staggering under the Depression’s impact, moved into a room in his Norfolk barbershop; his family, to reduce expenses, lived in their unsold house in Ashland. During this separation, the marriage came apart. When Herman and Ida Mae, called May, divorced, he married a widow, Mrs. Whitaker. (I got my ears from Herman, but have no memory at all of the man himself.)
In 1935, May Matison and her girls moved to Lincoln, where May supported her daughters doing seamstress work for a men’s clothing store. Maxine took an English class at Lincoln High from Willa Cather’s sister, Elsie, and published a story in the school literary magazine. Another teacher, a man, grilled her about an original writing, giving her the impression that he suspected plagiarism. She took heart from her own suspicion that Elsie Cather thought she had talent. After graduation, she wanted to write, but necessity led her to take a job as a telephone operator, at a time when operators manually patched through every call. In December, 1940, she financed her own train trip to Pasadena to see Nebraska play Stanford in the Rose Bowl. Even Nebraska’s one-touchdown defeat on New Year’s Day failed to daunt her: she relished the whole trip, viewing it as an exhilarating adventure.
In Lepanto, Lee Bishop likewise relished life, even though he hated his farm chores. Chopping cotton was a dull, sweaty task that inevitably led to the equally dull and sweaty task of picking it. He preferred fishing, hunting, and playing six-man high-school football as the scrawniest, meanest, most tenacious lineman on the Lepanto squad. His energy and good looks made him popular. He served as both captain of the football team and president of his senior class. He attended Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, some thirty miles away, and hitchhiked home nearly every weekend. Zelma recalls that once he toted a dog home in a suitcase into which he had cut a large airhole: “He ruined a brand-new suitcase. I was never so disgusted with him as I was that day.”
Because, at age six, Lee had laid his younger brother on a wood stove, burning Frank’s head so that he never after had any hair on that spot, the degree of my grandmother’s disgust may seem disproportionate, but the hole in the suitcase occurred with premeditation, whereas the bald spot on Frank’s head had resulted only from tenderness and inattention, and Zelma blamed herself for not being present to intervene. She later treated the burn by pouring ink on it.
Soon after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Lee enlisted in the army — less out of patriotism than the desire to outpoint Frank, who had already volunteered, and a heady conviction that military service would prove more interesting than life on the farm. As a private, he wound up in Lincoln, Nebraska. Here, in the summer of 1942, he and Mac met. Their attraction had a lot of physicality in it. The Lepanto kid thought Mac looked like a movie star, while she noted that, in uniform or bathing trunks, he was “cute.” Temperamentally and intellectually, they existed on different planes, but Lee’s persistence, along with the war and the mobilization at home, initially disguised this truth.
After their Yuma wedding, fresh duty assignments pushed Lee all over the states: Wichita Falls, Texas, for glider training; Miami, Florida, for Officer Candidate School (OCS), from which he emerged a commissioned “ninety-day wonder”; Denver’s Lowry Field, where as an earnest young lieutenant he posed for the camera before a ramshackle barracks building; and later, after my birth, Grand Island, Nebraska; Seattle, Washington; and Fort Bragg, North Carolina, among other places.
In Denver, Mac walked face-on into disturbing clues as to Lee’s flaky spontaneity and potential unreliability, but chose to ignore them. Once, for instance, driving a car whose fuel line often failed to feed gas to the carburetor, Lee asked a mechanic buddy to help him solve the glitch. A Newtonian with great faith in gravity, this buddy suggested mounting the gas tank on the Ford’s roof. They did. The car looked funny, but it ran. Mac, privately mortified, rode in this monstrosity. Returning from a movie one night, it burst into flame. Mac got out, stumbled to a curb. Fire trucks and police cars arrived. Knees together, chin in hands, Mac sat on the curb praying for invisibility.
I was born in Lincoln on November 12, 1945, three months after the end of the Pacific conflict. Mac had returned to her hometown to deliver me while Lee fulfilled a duty assignment on Saipan. The two had agreed on the name Michael for a boy. Mac claimed she had chosen it because of an Italian-American actor on the radio named Michael Raffetto, who played Paul Barbour on One Man’s Family. Lee claimed that Uncle Mike Maxwell, Zelma’s youngest brother, had provided its inspiration. Grandma May disapproved because everyone would call me Mike and to her this meant a roughneck stevedore type. (Uncle Mike jockeyed heavy yellow machinery on road-building crews in the Rockies.) Mac said that she would call me Michael, never Mike, but first took me up with the self-indicting cry, “Oh, Mike!”
Although an eight-pounder at birth, as a toddler I suffered devastating asthma attacks. More than once my symptoms nearly strangled me. Mac drove me to army doctors who stuck me with hypodermics, shot after shot to the (literal) point that at the outset of these trips I howled for mercy. But what could Mac do? Without the shots, my chest would deform, constricting my breathing permanently. Luckily, by age three or so, I began to outgrow the asthma, and but for the fact that my own son and daughter have fought periodic respiratory bouts, my escape from the condition has been total.
The war concluded without Lee’s ever having seen combat. He drilled, took glider training, even earned a paratrooper’s insignia. None of this work put him into battle. Later he survived duty in Korea, where he helped establish a military post office in Seoul, and soldiered, with paltry distinction, stateside and abroad, during the Cold War. He lacked the zeal and the respect (or at least the tolerance) for authority of the gung-ho lifer; and his womanizing, cockiness, indolence, and farm-boy sarcasms often sabotaged his hopes for advancement in his mostly accidental “career.”
In 1954 or so, Lee got riffed — caught in an Eisenhower Era Reduction in Force — and, after more than a decade in uniform, separated from the Air Force. He struggled to retrain himself, using the GI Bill to take courses in television broadcasting at the University of Denver and Syracuse University, but found job pickings slim and rejoined the Air Force to finish out his twenty years and obtain a pension. Although he could rejoin only as an enlisted man (a tech sergeant or four-striper), he would retire with a pension based on the salary of his highest Air Force Reserves rank, major. Soon after he had rejoined, an officer took his (unwise) request for permission to remove his shoes at his desk as insubordination and had him busted to airman first class. This lost stripe embittered Lee, who used his court-martial as an excuse to goldbrick. He felt he owed the military nothing. Ike was a sniveling Republican stooge, and most officers, in Lee’s aggrieved view, couldn’t tell their rear ends from a parachute pack.
But before the RIF, before the divorce, Lee wore his own officer bars with zest and pride; he must have seen his future as an immense, buffable pearl. Early in 1950, however, while stationed in Tokyo, he discovered that Mac, who had taken an apartment with her mother and me in Wichita, had no plans to rejoin him, ever. He secured an emergency leave through the Red Cross and flew home to convince Mac that she still loved him, that the three of us belonged together. He swore to his mother-in-law that he would improve as a husband. Mac, full of doubts, capitulated.
From "Military Brat: A Memoir", Contemporary Authors Autobiography
Published by Gale Research, © 1997.
Reprinted with permission from the author