To make sense of the diary incident and its aftermath, I have to first fill in a little background on my early life. My Dad, Jack (pictured above), struggled with alcoholism as a young man. During the latter part of her pregnancy with me, my mother went back home to her folks in Iowa while my Dad spent time in alcohol rehab. That is how I came to be born in Goldfield, Iowa, the town near the farm where my mother grew up during the Depression. A few months later the family, reunited, settled in an apartment in Chicago for awhile before moving to Southern California when I was about 3. My Dad never drank again after I was born.
To this day, none of the family know very much about Jack’s background, as he fabricated most of it. The stories became so elaborate over the years he couldn’t keep track of the details. He was born in Boise, or Chicago. His father was of American Indian ancestry, or a French Canadian fur trapper, or a sailor stationed in Hawaii. We are not even sure how he got the last name Tiner. Once he told me that Tiner was the name of a sailor, his real father. His mother Dorothy had married several times, and there was even some talk of her operating a one-woman house of ill repute, but I doubt it. Supposedly, there were some name change papers in existence, which showed a change from John Jeffrey Carnell to John Jeffrey Tiner. It’s possible my father didn’t know who his father was. Jack and his mother both claimed to be Welsh, but I strongly suspect they were Irish Americans wanting to hide Irish ancestry.
My father liked to say he was one of the top 40 smartest people alive. He did have wide-ranging knowledge, especially of American history, engineering and mathematics, and a photographic, encyclopedic memory. Once he visited a city somewhere in the world, he could navigate the city thereafter from memory.
It’s not clear my Dad ever received any formal higher education. At one time he said he attended a college in Iowa and played on the football team, but I think a relative later checked the facts and confirmed this was not true. Despite the lack of a formal degree, he passed himself off as a professional electrical engineer, claiming to have received his degree in Hamburg, Germany, at an institution where all records had been destroyed in a fire. He was self-taught.
He claimed a distinguished military record, a fact that caused some giggling when, at the time of his death in 2001, the funeral director inquired whether he should receive military honors at his burial. Once he told me he was a fighter pilot in Korea, and he also claimed various other military designations and experience. We never saw any US mail from the military. No uniforms or medals.
My Dad had moments of being a loving father when he was around, but he was often not. Sometimes he was gone for days or weeks on end. He said he had government work that took him on business travel all over the world, which he couldn’t discuss with anyone, including his family. Later, when I was an adult, he told me that sometimes he had affairs with women that took him away from home, but he was such a liar it’s hard to say if this was true. He was gone a lot, and when he was home, he was often at the library, or home reading a library book, twirling his wedding ring over and over in his fingers, lost in thought.
His idea of giving us some attention was to squeeze us with hugs and plant wet smooches on our cheeks, or to take us to the nearest ballpark so we could watch him bat a baseball out of the park. The first few times this was pretty impressive, and it was always good for impressing a new friend, but it got old. My Dad was very proud of his athletic prowess. He never tired of showing off. Supposedly, he played professional baseball for awhile.
He didn’t keep jobs very long. The people in charge were always getting everything wrong and he would eventually blow up, accusing a manager or co-worker of extreme idiocy, then get fired. This pattern did little to stabilize family life. We moved a lot, every couple of years, living in three different places in Southern California before moving to the East coast–first to New York, then to New Jersey then back to New York in 1967.
We typically lived in a low-income apartment complex or duplex such as Winoka Manor in Huntington Sta., NY, pictured above (a 2-bedroom 800 sq. ft. apartment is now $1425–yikes!), until finally buying the small house below in a middle-class neighborhood in Huntington, NY, 1967.
It was a middle class neighborhood, but we weren’t middle class ourselves. Yes, my mom had a profession as an RN, but she had grown up in rural poverty and was shaped by the strong values and culture of her upbringing on the farm. My Dad was worldly and sophisticated in many ways, but he had grown up in financially strained and volatile circumstances, and did not seem comfortable with an upwardly mobile mindset; that is, until he remarried. Although both were capable of warm affection at times, and did provide us with opportunities for education and enrichment (more on that later), they mostly held to the “children should be seen and not heard” philosophy. We were often in the way, annoying, messy or neglecting chores. They yelled at each other and at us. The stress level was high. Then they divorced.
When my Dad remarried, he seemed to seamlessly integrate into his new solidly middle class family, in which the children were well-nurtured (at least compared to my family) and expected to accomplish great things. This was Jack 2.0, the one we never knew, suddenly doing household chores, cooking dinner one night a week, driving step-children to activities, engaging in lively family discussions with real attentiveness and humor. He stepped into a character role in a different movie, one that was already in progress, and pulled up a chair as if he’d always been there. In this context, he seemed like the man with no past, just a charmed future.
After a year living at home with my mother, circa November 1972, I came home one afternoon to find her holding the violated diary, and learned of the decision to relocate me to my father’s new family. And so it was that I, already alienated from both parents, came to live in a situation in which I also could not have a past, except the one the adults appeared to agree on and which mostly featured me as incorrigible. To reveal my past would implicate my father’s. I tried to fit in, but never felt comfortable, and began to seek my own life and independence, which came sooner than I expected.