1 SON SHINE AND STORM
They say that abandonment is a wound that never heals. I say only that an abandoned child never forgets.
I took a few stealthy steps and stopped. With each breath, white puffs rose from my lips into the crisp morning air. Ahead of me, stretching to rolling hills in the distance, was a mostly desolate landscape dotted with sagebrush, cactus, and sand as far as the eye could see. I was in the sprawling Mojave Desert. My grip tightened on the rifle in my hands and I slowly turned my head, straining my eyes for the slightest sign of movement. I was on safari, a mighty hunter at last.
It was December 27, 1974. I was nearly eight years old. My weapon was a brand-new Marlin .22. My quarry was the mighty jackrabbit.
I trembled with excitement. How many hours on how many nights had I lain in the upper berth of my bunk bed at home, staring at the posters of deer and bears I’d put up on my wall, imagining this
day? Yet the best part wasn’t being in the outdoors or the anticipation of hunting game for the first time, though each of these was a prize in itself. Nope, the real reward was sharing this moment with the broad-shouldered man who stood next to me.
Roger Matthews, son of a World War II air force veteran, was a former Marine infantryman who these days wore the beige uniform of a California Highway Patrol officer. He was an imposing figure: six-foot-one, with an athletic build, a military haircut, and gray eyes that often seemed to bore through you. In many ways, he led his family—my mom, Elizabeth, and my younger brothers, Shane, age six, and Matt, age three—the way a sergeant might lead his platoon. When Dad told you to do something, there was no discussion or negotiation, and you’d better be getting started by the time he finished telling you. You addressed his friends and acquaintances as “sir.” If you weren’t fifteen minutes early, you were late. Good manners were required at all times. Dad wasn’t mean and we weren’t in boot camp, but the sense of military structure was undeniable.
To me, this was simply who my father was. His disciplined approach to life and our family made perfect sense to him and to me. It was one of the things that enabled him to do a dangerous job. Each time my father walked out of the house in the morning, that seven-point gold badge on his chest and pistol holstered at his side, I nearly burst with pride. He was a man who could handle himself, a man who took on the bad guys each day and won, a man people could count on.
He was my hero. I wanted to be just like him.
By the time of our rabbit hunt in the desert, Dad had spent three years teaching me gun safety, how to aim, and how to clean a rifle.
I’d already joined him on many hunts for quail and jackrabbits. Some days he’d pick me up early from kindergarten in his bright red Ford Bronco, drive out to a ravine on the back side of Big Bear Lake, and set up beside some boulders. My job was spotter and retriever. When I saw a flight of doves coming into range, I alerted Dad, who shot the birds out of the sky. I then ran into the bush to retrieve the doves and drop them into a hunting vest. We’d do that until dark. I was more like the hunting dog than the hunter, but I didn’t mind. I loved those outings, just Dad and me and the great outdoors.
Sometime during the last few months, I’d decided I was old enough to hunt with Dad using a rifle of my own. Every Saturday that fall, I walked to the local library and pored over the latest editions of Field & Stream, Outdoor Life, and Sports Afield magazines. I was searching for my weapon of choice—a Marlin .22 semiautomatic with a clip. I thought if I found one on sale, it would be easier to convince Dad to buy me one for Christmas.
I’d already made my wishes known. My Christmas list had only two items: the Marlin rifle and a box of ammo. I’d set my heart on getting that rifle. I was like Ralphie, the boy who longed for a Red Ryder BB gun in the movie A Christmas Story. I’m amazed no one told me I’d shoot my eye out.
But Dad never gave me the slightest hint that he was thinking about it. Whenever I brought it up, he’d say, “Well, I’m not sure about that yet.” By Christmas Eve I’d pretty much resigned myself to disappointment—it seemed the Marlin was not in my future. I tossed and turned in my bed that night. The numbers on the digital clock on my nightstand seemed frozen in place. I finally fell asleep at 2 a.m., then woke up three hours later. Fearing the worst but no longer able to contain myself, I crept down the dark hallway and into a room shimmering with Christmas magic.
My eyes first took in the five stockings tacked to the fireplace mantel, the material stretched and bulging from goodies hidden inside. Below, a gas fire was already glowing. Then I swept my gaze to the left and saw our Christmas tree, which was decorated with shining multicolored lights and surrounded by a mountain of presents. I quickly scanned the pile of packages. I knew the shape I was looking for—only it wasn’t there.
But when I stepped forward and looked behind the tree, I saw it. A long, slender box leaned against the wall. Could it be? I hurried over to inspect the tag. It read: “From Santa.” But who was it for?
This has to be it, I thought. But what if it’s not? It must be mine. But maybe it isn’t. My emotions bounced back and forth like a Ping-Pong ball.
Every year, Dad insisted that we kids open our biggest Christmas presents last. After everyone got up, I unwrapped a dozen packages, but my eyes never strayed long from that tall present. Finally, Dad grinned and said the words I’d been waiting to hear: “Greg, that box against the wall is for you.” I tore off the paper and found exactly what I’d dreamed of. In the reflection of the Christmas tree lights, the Marlin rifle’s barrel glinted like gold.
Dad had come through.
Now, two days later, I was finally in the desert with my father, ready to test my hunting skills against whatever nature had to offer. My legs shook with anticipation. We stood side by side, each of us scanning the terrain ahead. Suddenly, from the corner of my right eye, I caught a flash of movement. A jackrabbit!
“Dad!” I yelled. I pulled the Marlin’s stock to my shoulder.
But the crafty jackrabbit had accelerated to Mach 2 and was already fifty yards away. I had no chance at a shot. Then I realized it wouldn’t have mattered anyway—I’d forgotten to flip the rifle’s safety off.
“Hold on, Greg,” Dad said in a quiet voice. “You’ll get your chance at him.” Then he explained the secret of rabbit hunting: “They always run in a circle to get behind the threat that’s chasing them. If we turn 180 degrees and start walking back, we’ll run into him again.”
That’s just what we did, with Dad in the lead. And he was right. Not a hundred yards from where we’d started, Dad raised his hand and signaled me forward. Now I was really shaking. I drew up close to Dad and sighted along his outstretched arm. Twenty-five yards away, I saw the silhouette of ears through a clump of sagebrush.
Dad nudged me forward. “There he is, Greg, your first rabbit,” he whispered. “Remember, just squeeze the trigger.”
Slowly, I raised the Marlin and flipped off the safety. I felt my heart pound. It seemed as if the rifle barrel bounced with each beat. I aligned the front pin with the rear site. The barrel was aimed above my target, so I gently lowered it. I realized I was holding my breath. “Breathe, Greg,” I muttered.
The site settled just behind the rabbit’s left front leg. As I held the rifle’s position, it felt as if it weighed a hundred pounds. Almost imperceptibly, my finger put pressure on the trigger. This was it, years of hopes and dreams caught up in this one moment with my dad.
The blast of the rifle surprised me. The recoil struck my shoulder. I realized I’d shut my eyes.
Dad’s voice pierced the air: “You got him, Greg. You got him!”
I ran as fast as that rabbit had to where I knew I’d find him. My yell of delight roared across the desert.
Dad arrived and put his arm around me. “Congratulations, Greg,” he said. “You’re a real hunter now.” The approval in Dad’s eyes made it the proudest moment of my young life.
* * *
IF YOU WERE A YOUNG boy and got to pick where you would grow up, you’d have a hard time making a better choice than sunny San Diego. We lived in the Mira Mesa area at the northern edge of the city. Every day, it seemed, a new adventure beckoned. Shane and I often got up at 4 a.m., grabbed our tackle boxes, taped our fishing rods to our bikes, and rode five miles to Miramar Lake to catch rainbow trout, bluegill, catfish, or largemouth bass. Closer to home was the canyon—really just a large gully—with a creek. Almost every day after school, Shane and I took off our shoes and caught crawdads, built forts, and played war in our neighborhood wilderness. Sometimes we included three-year-old Matt, if we were tasked with babysitting duty.
My mother, a stay-at-home mom, was in many ways everything Dad was not. While Dad struggled with being affectionate, Mom loved to give her boys hugs, taught us how to say “I love you,” and was so attentive when she talked with us that you couldn’t help feeling you were special. Dad’s ever-changing schedule didn’t always allow him to be there for our games and school activities, but we could count on Mom being there.
Since we didn’t see Dad as often, the times we did have with him were especially meaningful. The best of those were always somewhere in the open air. Dad wasn’t an expert hunter or fisherman, but he loved the outdoors nonetheless. He felt he’d been born in the wrong century. He believed he was meant to be a mountain man who hunted, fished, and lived off the land. Every summer, Dad took us boys to the Sierra Nevada Mountains for a week of camping, exploring, and reeling in hundreds of trout from icy streams. Fishing poles, tents, BB guns, and campfires were our world. The fish we caught and the game we killed were treated respectfully—an animal had died so we could eat, therefore nothing was wasted. Those times in the wild
with Dad—in fact, the first eight years of my life—were like a wonderful dream.
Sports were another opportunity to spend time with Dad. He didn’t talk much about having been an athlete when he was younger, but he loved seeing me and my brothers excel on the playing fields. I was six years old when I first threw a baseball. A friend of Dad’s saw me reach back and hurl that thing and said I was a natural, so Dad started catching me in the backyard. After I turned seven, I played Little League baseball in the spring, summer, and winter. I wasn’t bigger than other kids my age, but I already had broad shoulders and was strong. I guess I was a natural—I had enough success both as a pitcher and hitter that other coaches started showing up at my games to scout me for their teams in the future.
I knew Dad was proud of me. He reveled in every strikeout and home run. Hugs, kisses, and comforting words were not part of his arsenal, but when I performed well, he bragged about me to friends with a twinkle in his eye. There was a dark side, however, to my athletic achievements and Dad’s praise. Maybe Mom’s unqualified support made me desire Dad’s approval even more. Maybe it was simply that every young boy wants his father to be proud of him. Whatever the reason, I wanted to please him so badly that I put enormous pressure on myself. I began suffering from headaches and an upset stomach before games. I was afraid of failing. I did not want to let Dad down.
The other dark cloud in my life was the occasional fights between my parents, which seemed to increase as I got older. They seemed to happen only after my brothers and I went to bed. Sometimes the yelling got so loud that I just put my pillow over my head. One night, Mom was screaming at Dad. Then I heard the sound of glass shattering. In the morning, a trail of broken plates littered the floor from the kitchen into the dining room.
As bad as those fights were, everything always seemed to quickly return to normal. Mom and Dad acted as if nothing was wrong, so I didn’t worry about it. I figured the yelling and fighting were just part of ordinary family life.
That was still my attitude on a hot day about seven months after I received the Marlin .22. It was the summer before I would enter fifth grade. My brothers and I were playing Wiffle ball in our front yard. Dad, wearing a polo shirt, jeans, and tennis shoes, emerged from the front door of our home carrying a couple of boxes. He walked to his beige Chevy Malibu parked in the driveway, set the boxes in the backseat, and headed back toward the house.
“What are you doing, Dad?” I asked before he reached the door.
“Just carrying some boxes.”
“Can we help?” my brothers and I said in unison. Dad didn’t answer. He just kept walking toward the house. Shane, Matt, and I ran to catch up and filed into the house behind him. We found a pile of boxes stacked in our parents’ bedroom. Now it was a competition between us boys to see who could help Dad the most. We raced back and forth with boxes, loading the back seat of the car until you couldn’t even see out the back window.
Once all but two of the boxes had been moved, we stood on the sidewalk next to the Chevy with ear-to-ear grins and waited for Dad’s words of praise. Who would he say was the best helper? Shane and Matt argued about who carried the most boxes and who helped Dad the most. My father walked across the lawn carrying the final boxes. Without a word, he placed them in the front passenger seat of the Chevy. He didn’t look at us. He couldn’t look at us.
Dad walked around the front of the car, opened the driver’s-side door, and just stood there. We looked at him and wondered what was going on. “Dad,” I asked, “what are all the boxes for?”
He dropped his head, then finally looked each of us in the eye. “Boys, your mother and I still love each other, and this has nothing to do with you, but I’m not going to be living here anymore. I promise that we will see each other.”
I was in shock. This wasn’t possible. Tears began streaming down my face. Suddenly, my whole world was disintegrating in front of me. Both of my brothers were now sobbing. In a pleading voice, Shane cried out, “Dad, please don’t go.”
Dad dropped his head again. “I have to go, boys.” He got into the Chevy, shut the door, and drove away without looking back.
My life would never be the same again.