Just a warning - this installment of the story is a little heavier than the last part.
If you’re just getting here, this is PART 3 of a multi-part series.
If you need to catch up, you can find PART 1 by clicking HERE and PART 2 by clicking HERE.
[NOTE: If you are a member of my family, I can't stop you from reading this, but I would prefer that you didn't., especially this section. If you do read it, please do me a favor and give me a little time before we talk about it.]
When a roof caves in, it’s usually due to a number of things going wrong - some over time, and some in that very moment. Maybe termites eat through part of the structure. Perhaps, a missing shingle allows rain to enter and rot sets-in. Things deteriorate slowly, waiting for the right moment. Then, an earthquake occurs or something falls from the sky or someone climbs a ladder and goes to the top of the house to retrieve a frisbee. These things combine in the perfect storm and suddenly, there's a hole in your home and you can’t live there until it's fixed.
I Was a Teenage Pregnancy. That should be the title of a Ramones song. Instead, it’s just how my life started. That’s not unique. Millions of kids are born to teenagers. I’m just bringing it up because it explains why my parents’ marriage was doomed from the start. They were a high school couple in small-town America, where there’s not much to do besides get pregnant.
And so it was, during what I assume was a fumbling night of passion on an unlit dirt road, in my father’s pine-green Chevy pickup truck, underscored by the sounds of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, that a farm boy and a factory worker’s daughter made a baby. Whoops.
From that point on, their lives became a Bruce Springsteen song. They had a small wedding that I attended in an adorable baby-blue tux. My father gave up his dream of being a country singer and, after a summer working construction, moved my mother and me into the married-student housing wing of a nearby junior college.
The marriage lasted a little over 3 years and was absolutely miserable. In between classes, my father worked at a local chicken farm. We were so poor that he would steal chickens and bring them home for dinner. I can still remember the smell of my mother plucking their feathers in the sink.
When there was a disagreement, my parents didn’t argue - they fought. I was too young to remember what these fights were about - probably how they were spending what little money they had or why one of them got to go out and spend time with friends while the other was stuck at home taking care of the kids.
I say kids, plural, because two years into wedded bliss, my mother got pregnant again. (That’ll save a marriage!) We couldn't really afford another mouth to feed. The tension reached a boiling point and stayed there.
When I say they fought, I mean my dad fought. My mom mostly screamed and cried. I was usually sent to my room when things got heated, but I would crack my door and peer down the hallway. I remember seeing my father rip the phone out of the wall when my mom threatened to call the police. I saw him hit her countless times. It was like a horror movie had come to life. He transformed into a monster, and there was nothing I could do to help. I had nightmares constantly. I remember one recurring dream where there was a wolf’s head hanging on the wall. The wolf would talk to me. It told me it was the devil, and then the wolf would morph into the head of my father. I would wake up screaming, but there was no way I could tell my parents that I dreamed my father was the devil. I was 3 years old.
I remember the night of their final fight. I was awakened to that old familiar shouting. I cracked my door, and peered down the hallway to see my mother. She was wearing an orange Oklahoma State University football jersey as a nightshirt. They were screaming as she avoided a punch and his fist went through the wall. This time was different, though. She wasn’t asking him not to hit her. She was telling him it would be the last time he would have the chance. She was leaving him. And she was taking the kids.
Without realizing it, I had been walking down the hall and found myself standing in the living room, just feet from them. “No you’re not! You’re not taking my son. He wants to stay here with me!” I don’t know where he got that notion.
I nearly peed my pants when he realized I was in the room. He didn't sent me back to bed. Instead, he looked down at me, and the man who was the devil-on-the-wall in my dreams asked me, point-blank, “Do you want to stay with me, or your mother?” I was terrified. He stared into my soul, looking rabid as spit formed at the corners of his mouth.
I don’t know how I was able to form words. Something swelled inside of me. The fear wasn't gone, it was just overpowered by something else. I planted my feet, tilted my head upwards, looked him in the eye, and said, “I want to go with Mom.”
And then he slapped me. Hard. The force of the impact lifted my body off the ground. Tears formed in my eyes as I landed, but I knew it was over. Shortly after, they were divorced.
I don’t hate my father. These days, we are both in a good place, and he is not the person he was then. He grew up learning that violence was how a man handled an unruly woman. It was the code of his people. It was all he knew. He was 20 years old, and the only view in sight was an uphill struggle with no way out. I hate those memories, but I do not hate him. In a way, I think that her leaving was a relief. He got to relax and just be a college kid.
I didn’t see him much over the next few years, but he wasn’t absent entirely. Now and then, he would show up with a stuffed animal, and take my sister and I to the movies or out to eat. He paid child support. He was different. He was happy.. I loved those visits. One time, he and my mother both went along when they took me to the movies. That was confusing. Were they getting back together? They weren’t. Turns out they both just wanted to see Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
Things changed when my father started dating Susan. She had a big personality and immediately charmed my sister and I. Once they became engaged, she started referring to us as “her kids.” I was the ring-bearer at their wedding. Their colors were lavender and white. Gross.
My father finished his veterinary degree, and they moved to California. They brought my sister and me out to visit one summer. It was magical. We went to Disneyland, saw the ocean for the first time, and ate ice cream as we walked down the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Up to this point, Disneyland was a place of legend. I had never met anyone who had actually been. Heck, the only way I even knew to get there was if I won a trip by beating the obstacle course on an episode of Double Dare. It was a dream trip, and I couldn’t stop talking about it once I returned home. I had no idea why this made my mother so upset. I realize now it was because they were lavishing us with gifts and experiences that she would never be able to afford. In her mind, they were buying the love of her kids. Her instincts were right.
During a conversation with Susan, my mother once told me she said, “I can’t have kids, so I’m going to take yours.” If that’s not a moment straight out of a Lifetime Original Movie, it should be.
Not long after that, my father was offered a partnership at a vet clinic in Florida, so he and Susan moved to West Palm Beach. The summer before I entered 5th grade, they wanted to have us come stay with them for 6 weeks. My father had never kept us for such a long time, and my mom was skeptical. At this point, she was living with Charles, and he and my father did not like each other. He called my dad a racist redneck. I don’t know if they ever had a direct incident, or if he just hated him because of what my mother had told him. Nevertheless, they relented when they saw how much it would mean to Mandy and me.
That summer was incredible It was the kind of summer that kids imagine when they're daydreaming at the end of the school year. I was a big fan of martial arts, and they enrolled in a Tae Kwon Do day camp. By the end of my time there, I had broken my first board and earned a yellow belt. We went swimming almost daily, and ate lobster for the first time. I constantly hung out with my new best friend from camp, Ronnie. Every day was was full of new experiences.
One night, my father attempted to have the “sex talk” with me. Earlier in the year, I found a couple of Penthouse magazines sitting atop a dumpster. I had never seen a naked woman before, and holy cow was I captivated! I brought them home for further examination, and it wasn’t long until my mother found them hidden in my room. She confronted me, and I confessed, ashamed. I didn’t know exactly why I was ashamed. I wasn’t masturbating or anything. I didn’t even know what masturbating was. I was just curious about the female form. Of course, in these periodicals, the female form was spread eagle and, on select pages, was being penetrated by the male form. She threw them out and said she didn’t want to find anything like that in my room again. I thought I was grounded for sure, but she never brought it back up. What she did was call my father before I went to visit him and asked him to talk to me about it that summer.
He sure picked a weird time to do it. My dad, Susan, and my sister had just finished dinner at a restaurant called the Banana Boat. Susan and Mandy stayed inside to take care of the bill, and my dad asked me to accompany him to the parking lot to get the car. Once inside the vehicle, he told me he heard I had found some dirty magazines. “Yeah,” I said sheepishly.
“You know,” he said, “there’s nothing wrong with looking at a little pussy now and then. Heck, I even like to look at a little bit of pussy, myself. Don’t get me wrong, I’d never cheat on Susan, but once in awhile, I like to look. At pussy.”
I was mortified. How many times was he going to say "pussy?" Thankfully I was saved as Susan arrived at the car, abruptly ending this trainwreck of a conversation. “We’ll finish this later,” my dad said as she and my sister took their seats. Thankfully, we never did, and that was the full extent of our sex talk. It's kind of weird how time changes perspective. A few years before, I thought this man might be the actual devil. Now, I was just praying he would stop saying "pussy."
Believe it or not, that wasn’t the most awkward conversation of the summer. One night, my father and Susan sat Mandy and I down at the dinner table and asked us if we wanted to live with them permanently. What?! I was blindsided. I mean, I was having fun here, but it wasn’t my home. They broke down the reasons we should stay, and it was hard to disagree. Didn’t I like it there? Of course, I did. What did I want to do with my future? Did I want to continue learning Tae Kwon Do? Did I want to keep seeing my friend, Ronnie? Did I want to go to a good college? My father was a veterinarian and Susan was a stock broker - couldn’t they afford to give me a better life than two people who worked at McDonald’s? Their points made sense. It didn’t mean I wanted to leave my mother, though. In their minds, it was all settled. The wheels were set in motion.
My sister and I were sent to see a psychiatrist We were told this was a thing that a lot of kids did. We had no idea we were there so that our words could be used in court.
Before they sent us back home at the end of the summer, Susan decided I should get a perm. You remember perms - those terrible, chemically-induced haircuts that were popular with the the ladies of the 80s?! Well, I got one of those. I didn't want one of those. I had no desire for one of those. But, Susan insisted I get one of those, so. . . . I got one of those. I dealt with a lot of abuse as a kid but, all these years later, this is the thing I have the hardest time forgiving. I returned to Oklahoma looking like a fat, white Lionel Richie.
I was happy to be back. My mother was astounded at how much weight I had lost. I was still chubby, but all that running around, swimming, and doing Tae Kwon Do had diminished my girth considerably. Still had a perm, though, so I wasn’t exactly strutting around with confidence.
This was about the time that Tad and I started hanging out. One incident cemented our friendship more than any other. I mentioned earlier that we had a tendency to shoplift. We stole magazines, cassette tapes, and cigarettes pretty regularly. Cigarettes were part of the rock and roll equation. It was important that we started smoking as soon as possible. We didn’t inhale, mostly because we didn’t know how, but we never felt more like rock stars on the rise than when we were sitting in the woods, making plans for our band while puffing on a Marlboro Red. We fancied ourselves expert thieves, and started to take more and more with each attempt. We got cocky. We got greedy. We got caught. One fateful day, we confidently strolled into the Edmond Skaggs Alpha Beta grocery store, and filled Tad’s bag with about a dozen cassette tapes, a carton of cigarettes, and a handful of magazines. We did our usual lap around the store, planning to make a nonchalant exit through produce. I strolled through the doors and out to the sidewalk. Then, I noticed Tad wasn’t with me. Weird. Maybe he forgot something. Maybe he went behind the store. I sat down and waited. A half hour went by before I gave up and walked home, thinking he must’ve done the same.
I ambled through the door to my apartment to find my mother pacing, irate. She demanded to know what Tad and I had gotten up to at the store. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. We didn’t do anything!,” I insisted. The jig was up. He had been nabbed on his way out. They called his mother. She called mine, and I was driven in tense silence back to the supermarket. They took us to the back office, where I met Tad and a police officer who gave us a graphic lecture on how miserable life was at a juvenile detention center. We would be beat up and possibly raped. I cried. I didn’t want to go to jail. I begged. I promised it would never happen again. My career as a thief was over. I was a changed man. They agreed not to press charges so long as I wrote an apology letter. I wrote it that very night. Although we weren’t arrested, we both received a lifetime ban from all Skaggs Alpha Beta locations.
Our mothers decided that Tad and I would not be able to see each other for a month. An entire month?! It was a light punishment in retrospect, but at the time it seemed like an unjust eternity. Torn asunder by our own houses, we were like Romeo & Juliet, but without all the boners and suicide. We made it through our forced separation, and picked up right where we left off, making plans to change the face of rock and roll, bonded together as literal partners in crime.
While I was grounded, I was home more. I noticed something had changed between my mother and Charles. A couple days after I had returned home from Florida, she sat me down on the couch to make an announcement. She was pregnant - wiith twins! I seemed happier about it than she was, which was odd.
Their whirlwind romance had cooled off at this point. That can be expected, right? As relationships go on, infatuation fades and routine sets in. But, this was something else. Charles was moody all the time. He and my mother argued constantly over little things, like how the living room should be arranged. He started spanking me for minor infractions, like rolling my eyes when he told me to take out the trash. He didn’t beat me - it was just a regular, standard spanking - but he had never done that before. A cloud of rage bubbled just below the surface, and everything kind and charming about this man seemed to have evaporated. I thought that maybe he was going through a phase. I avoided him by being out of the house as often as possible.
I hadn’t told my mother about the discussion around my father’s kitchen table. I just hoped the talk of me moving to Florida would fade with time. It seemed like it would. Fall gave way to spring and, on April 1, 1991, my mother’s water broke during Easter dinner. That night, she gave birth to my baby brothers, Mark and Michael. With two new mouths to feed, she and Charles seemed to be working more than ever, leaving me with constant babysitting duty.
I graduated 5th grade and embarked on my final summer before middle school. My mother, understandably, didn’t want to send me to see my father during vacation. He and Susan didn’t push the issue. We found out why when my mother was served with custody papers. Panic set in. The roof started to fall.
My mother was at a loss. This woman, who had scratched and scraped every penny together to support her children, had been told she had to defend herself as a better parent than the man who had beat her. His wife, a woman who vowed to take away her children was making good on the threat. It was too much. It was a battle she could not win. They had the money for a great lawyer. They could pay psychiatrists. They had character witnesses who never knew my father as the monster he was in his 20s. Mom, on the other hand, sold Big Macs for a living and, in addition to my sister and me, had three other sons to provide for. It was hopeless..
Lost in my own world, I had no idea how serious things had become. Halloween was coming up, and Tad and I had plans to dress up as Ace Frehley and Peter Criss of KISS. We purchased our makeup, and our template was the cover of the Dynasty album. I had it on cassette (purchased this time - not stolen). I loved KISS from an early age, when my uncle Mark showed me their terrible, made-for-television movie, Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park. We had to watch it out of sight of my grandmother, because she was convinced that KISS stood for Knights in Satan's Service and forbade us having anything to do with them. The taboo nature of the band gave them extra appeal. Ace Frehley - The Spaceman - was, and still is, my favorite member of the band. They were like rock and roll superheroes, and this Halloween was going to be something special.
On October 30th, with the court date looming, my mother pulled me aside. Her tone was serious, and I started scanning my memory for things I had done that I might be in trouble for. She asked me to tell her, without a doubt, if I wanted to remain living with her. Of course, I did. After everything we had been through, there was no one on earth I loved more. I hated being in the middle of this, but when it came down to it, I chose her.
“Well, in that case, there are some things I need to tell you,” she said. She reminded me of what it was like when she and my father were married. We hadn’t ever talked at-length about those times, and cried as the memories came back. What she told me next, I was not prepared for.
She had called a women’s abuse hotline recently, and talked to them about Charles’s behavior. They were very concerned and told her that he was exhibiting the signs of a sociopath. They insisted we needed to get out of there as soon as possible before something very bad happened. She told me how he treated her when they were alone. Sometime, around when she became pregnant, he began acting like she was his property. She told me how he forced himself on her while she was pregnant. I want to throw up after typing that last sentence. I can’t - just - let’s move on.
My mother said we were going to leave. Not just Charles. Not just the apartment. We were leaving everything. We were going underground - into hiding. We would change our names and go somewhere where he wouldn’t be able to find us - where my father and Susan couldn’t take me away from her. She wanted me to come, but the decision had to be mine.
WHAT THE HELL WAS GOING ON?! This is the kind of thing that happens in movies or to the guests on The Phil Donahue Show. It sure as shit isn’t a decision that an 11 year-old kid should have to make.
I didn’t even have to think about it. I was in. Of course I was in. After hearing what she had been through, there was no way I was letting her go on this journey without me. She needed me.
But, what about Tad? What about Rampage? In an instant, that dream was over. I guess it was coming to an end whether I left with my mother or ended up going to stay with my dad.
The plan was to leave on November 1st, which meant I would get to have one last hurrah with Tad on Halloween. I couldn’t tell him I was leaving, though. I couldn’t tell anyone.
Halloween was bittersweet. My mother helped do my makeup. I didn’t come out looking exactly like Space Ace, but she did her best, and that was good enough for me. I walked over to Tad’s place to meet him. He already had his Peter Criss makeup on. It turned out about as good as mine. That evening is a blur. I remember laughing, maybe a little too hard, at his jokes as we walked around the neighborhood trick-or-treating. I remember one house we went to gave us full cans of soda. I remember hardly anyone knew we were supposed to be members of KISS, and we had to explain our costumes a lot. Most of all, I remember how hard it was to avoid telling him I was leaving tomorrow - that I wouldn’t be Jamie Campbell anymore, and that we would never see each other again. That’s some heavy baggage for a kid to carry around and as the night came to an end, I almost let it slip. But, I didn’t. I remember it was a Thursday night, and as I left, I lied. I told him I would see him at school tomorrow before laying eyes on my best friend for the very last time.
On Friday, November 1, 1991, the adventure began. We waited until Charles left for work, and quickly packed our bags. I brought clothes, but I also brought my most important items - my Walkman, batteries, and cassette tapes. I also brought Victoria - the guitar that Tad and I could not play, but were co-owners of. It was my week with the instrument, and though I felt a little guilty taking her with me, I figured Tad would understand.
A taxi cab picked us up, and we made our hasty departure. Soon, with the help of a network of women’s shelters, we found ourselves in Albuquerque, New Mexico, telling everyone our last name was Williams.
Sometimes necessity forces you to grow up faster than you should. I grew up a lot over the six months that followed. I know that I was a willing passenger on this journey, but that’s not how the court saw it. Of course, that's not how they saw it. I was a kid. When my mother didn’t show up for the hearing, she forfeited the case. My father was awarded sole custody of my sister and myself. Since we were nowhere to be found, my mom was now a fugitive of justice: wanted for kidnapping.
There’s still more of this story to tell. The next six months were some of the strangest times of my life. I’m sure that as I write it, I’ll remember things that I haven’t thought of in decades. This one took a lot out of me, so I understand if you need to take a break. If you want to know the rest, CLICK HERE for PART 4.
This is PART 3 of a multi-part series.
For PART 1, click HERE.
For PART 2, click HERE.