I was a boy once, a long time ago, and I had a real SOB for a father, which makes me an expert on Donald Trump. If Trump suffers from some form of arrested development, as many assessments of his behavior and character contend, I know where he stopped and why. It’s not enough to observe that Trump behaves like a 14-year-old boy. I’m certainly not the first to observe that Trump acts compulsively, inappropriately, self-destructively, apparently unable to calculate consequences or indeed care about them, but the question is why? What was going on back when the rest of us moved on, and Trump screeched to an adolescent halt?
By most accounts, Trump’s father was a frightening, domineering, demanding, overwhelming force in his life. So was mine. I can’t recall a moment of my childhood when I felt that I was measuring up to his demands on me. Whenever I carried out the duties I was given, it wasn’t good enough. This kind of stuff sounds petty now, but when I was a boy, it wasn’t just the biggest thing in my life; it was my whole life.
Spots might be found on a glass I had washed: Don’t just rewash the glass; wash all the dishes again. Two minutes late for my 9 p.m. curfew on a Friday night I had spent with my friends at Teentown drinking 5-cent Cokes and dancing to the jukebox and playing pool: Confined to my room for the next two weekends. Bed made improperly: Tear everything off and make it perfectly. House not clean, ashtrays not emptied, trash not taken out by the time he and my mother got home from an evening out: Restricted for the rest of the weekend. The one word I recall saying to my mother over and over and over again as I pleaded with her to talk to him for me was "unfair." It’s unfair that I’m the one who’s always in trouble! He doesn’t treat me fairly! It’s unfair that I can never do anything right! He’s unfair! Unfair!
What was a boy to do, especially when you’re a 10, 11, 12 years old and you just flat-out worship your father? In my case, Dad was a graduate of West Point, an Army officer and a really fine one. Watching him go off to work in the morning in his starched fatigues or his dress uniform was like watching a movie star make an exit. He was outrageously handsome, regal in bearing, put together as if he had attendants — and in his case, he did: my mother. He had been decorated for bravery in combat, and in fact, there is a scene in David Halberstam’s book about the Korean War “The Coldest Winter,” depicting the event for which he was decorated. I grew up wanting nothing more than to be just like him — like the best parts of him, that is. The rest of him was “unfair,” and for the life of me I couldn’t understand why.
Well, what a boy did in my case, and probably Trump’s case as well, was to misbehave, to find ways of breaking the rules the father imposed. I didn’t understand it then, but this was the way a boy begins to separate from a suffocating, overbearing father. You start out by breaking rules Dad hadn’t bothered to impose, getting away with stuff he would have no way of knowing about. I remember being about 12 or 13 in Leavenworth, Kansas, when my friends and I would ride our bikes downtown on Saturday mornings to play pinball machines at a place on Cherokee Street. On the way was a classic old junkyard quite literally stuffed with everything boys loved — wrecked ’36 Fords and piles of rusted tools and tractor parts and stacks of junked bumpers and wooden boxes of carburetors.
An old guy lived in a small trailer on the place and looked after it for the owner. We used to stop at the junkyard and nose around. He would come out of his trailer and yell at us and run us off, so naturally we took to climbing over the fence and sneaking into corners of the place where he couldn’t see us and stealing stuff. We were riding our bikes, so we couldn’t carry much. I remember taking a rusted wrench one time. We weren’t stealing stuff because we needed it or could use it. And I doubt they ever discovered anything was missing, it was so insignificant. The thing was to do something you knew your father would punish you for — and get away with it.
As we grew older, we misbehaved closer to home, and it was more dangerous because of that fact. We could drive at 14 in Kansas, and Dad set a limit on how many miles I could drive the car on Friday and Saturday nights. So I learned to unscrew the speedometer cable. My friend Ricky Kettler and I would unscrew the cable, gas up the car and drive down to Kansas City and shoot pool at a hall right out of “The Hustler” and drive back to Leavenworth. Several miles out of town, we would hook up the cable so the speedometer would rack up enough miles to be just under the 10-mile limit. In later years I would get home by curfew at 10 p.m. or whenever it was, wait until my parents were asleep and push the family Volkswagen out of the garage and down the street, start it up and drive into Washington, D.C., and hang out at a coffee joint called the Crow’s Toe and listen to beatniks recite poetry until the wee hours.
But the tastiest, most satisfying stuff to get away with always involved girls. A lot of it was mutual because the girls were making their own moves to separate from their parents. In Leavenworth, we used to have teenage dance parties, usually in some girl’s basement. We would drink Cokes and play 45s and dance and then several times a night someone would turn off the lights and yell “60 seconds of heaven!” and boys and girls would find one another and kiss in the dark. It was supposed to be so dark you wouldn’t know whom you were kissing because at least for the boys, we didn’t want a girl to know we “liked her.” But it was never that dark, and the girls knew and we knew. And most of all, we all knew we were getting away with something down there in the basement that our parents would disapprove of. A couple of years later, we devised strategies to drive to secret spots on the edge of town and “go parking,” the back seats of cars transformed into places of illicit exploration and wonder.
But not all of it was mutual. Some of it was just nasty adolescent boy behavior. For about a year right after girls started wearing bras, we tried to figure out ways to come up behind them and pop their bra straps without getting caught. Same with pinching their asses. There were frequent attempts to catch glimpses of girls changing into their gym clothes in the junior high locker room. We discussed various strategies to brush up against girls’ breasts without seeming to be copping a feel. And we talked about girls behind their backs, about their “reputations” or lack thereof, comparing notes about how best to have our way with them. Being naughty. The very essence of adolescence, right?
Any of this sound familiar? Kissing? Grabbing? Sneaking peeks? Always trying to get away with it? Talking about them afterward? You’d have had me at 14 if you had an open mic and a motor home.
What does any of this have to do with a domineering SOB of a father, you might ask? Well, it has to do with separating yourself from him. If you can violate his rules and get away with it, you at least have the feeling that you’re moving away from him. But the problem is, misbehaving behind your father’s back doesn’t work. There is little satisfaction in getting away with something a father doesn’t even find out about; thus there was no chance of precipitating the kind of reaction that would establish a real separation, a real drawing of a line.
In my case, my relationship with my father got so bad that I tried to run away when I was a senior in high school. I had made a list of everything I needed, including how much money I had saved, and one night it fell between the wall and my bed. My mother discovered the list when she was cleaning my room and realizing what it was and talked me out of it, convincing me that I should wait until I learned whether I would get a congressional appointment to West Point. Yes, even with everything else about my father, I still wanted to follow what I saw as the best in him, and a month or so later Rep. Patsy T. Mink appointed me to West Point and the rest is history, as they say.
I got in one last symbolic dig. A friend of mine was having the same sort of father problems I was, so we decided we wouldn’t wait even a minute to leave home once we graduated from high school. We constructed a canvas camper-style cover over the bed of his ’54 Chevy pickup, threw in a mattress and several cases of beer and our suitcases, and the night we graduated at 8 p.m., we jumped in the truck and headed for Virginia Beach. I didn’t go back home until two weeks later on the day I had to leave for induction at West Point, and then all I did was drop off my suitcase, pack my toilet kit and get a ride from my mother to the Greyhound station in Washington (you were told not to bring anything more than the clothes on your back, a toothbrush and a razor to West Point because you wouldn’t be needing anything else).
I didn’t see my parents until Christmas. It was my middle finger to Dad. You think you can push me around? No more. I had made up my mind even then that I wanted to be an Army officer just like him, but I would never be the kind of father he was. In ways large and small in the coming years, I tried to do exactly that. I don’t think we ever had what you would might call a normal father-son relationship as adults.
In fact, many years later, at the Thanksgiving table in my house in Los Angeles, he was verbally abusive to my 4-year-old daughter, just like he had been not only with me but also with my brother and sisters when we were kids. I once saw him sit at the table with my brother for four hours until he was made to finish his peas, and that kind of thing wasn’t going to happen again, especially not with my daughter. As soon as the other guests left, I told him he wasn’t welcome in my house anymore. I threw him out the next morning. We didn’t talk for over a year, and he died two years after that.
It’s a sad story, isn’t it? But I would say a far sadder story is never actually cutting the cord with a father who was so abusive and controlling and domineering. I don’t think Trump ever really left home when he moved across the East River from Queens to Manhattan. His brother, who by all accounts was even more intimidated by their father than Trump was, drank himself to death at 42, and even that sad event didn’t cause Trump to change. All he did was continue doing the same kind of stuff he did as a kid. I’d be willing to bet a month’s pay that every time he got in trouble as a boy, he lied about it and blamed someone else. If that didn’t work, and he got caught, it would be “unfair.”
I look back at the way things were when I was a kid and give thanks I was lucky enough to have the mother I had because she saved me not from my father but also from myself. She was my example for the kind of parent I wanted to be. I’ve already written elsewhere about her teaching me how I should treat girls. She wasn’t a rock or an anchor. She showed me the way out, and she helped me to grow up enough that I could get there. Sadly, I think we are suffering the consequences of Donald Trump not having the same kind of luck. He never grew up. He’s still 14 years old. He tries to get away with stuff, and when he gets caught he lies, and whoever catches him is unfair. Just like Dad.