Oh Captain, My Captain
When I was a kid, I didn’t think much about the kind of dad I would someday become. I was too busy daydreaming and doing the stuff that young boys do in their prepubescent years to think about such distant things. My own father was an unknown, faceless stranger whom I never knew until I turned thirty and was about to be a father for the first time, myself. I grew up one of those so-called “latch-key” kids whose young, attractive, single mom worked hard as a waitress for meager pay and a few lousy tips. She would head to her job at a small dive of a pub every day before I got home from school, leaving instructions to throw frozen pot pies into the oven for supper and for me and my siblings to be in bed by 9:00pm. She had a few boyfriends in and out of the home during those years, but none of them ever became a permanent fixture. Consequently, I created in my own mind, a masculine patriarch composed out of the figures of fatherhood and masculinity that television of the late 1960s and early 1970s had to offer. I soaked them up like a sponge.
During my childhood afternoons I found myself less in the sunshine or out playing in the yard, than in the dimly lit basement of my mother’s home, watching television. Every day, for several hours-a-day, I absorbed the varied heroes of Tinsel Town television, the sheriffs, outlaws, adventurers and secret agents in such shows as Robin Hood, The Wild, Wild West, Lost in Space and Gunsmoke. They were the manly icons that constructed my view of masculinity; the varied elements that comprised the amalgamated imaginary surrogate father of my youth.
Yet, there was one cathode-induced hero who stood head and shoulders above all the rest. No other televised character could compare with the fictional leader who, to me in my childhood, represented an image of what I wanted to become as a man; an escape from the emotional turmoil of my youth. Designed by his creator to be the Horatio Hornblower of outer space, Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise established for me the image of what I began to believe a man was really supposed to be.
There was something very different about the good captain that struck a chord of harmony with that little boy back in the late 1960s. It wasn’t until recent years that I was able to uncover the buried emotions of my past and discover why as a young boy, I found a “kindred spirit,” if you will, with the fictitious space-age adventurer.
Now, for the record, I must state that while I believe in good psychology, I have a great fear of much of the psycho-babbly, gobbelty-gook associated with the more non-scientific facet of the craft. And, quite frankly, as a ‘Guy,’ I am not always comfortable revealing the deeper, darker side of my emotional make up. So if I delve into either of those areas too deeply, extend some gracious latitude by accepting what you can, and leaving behind what you cannot go along with.
As I was growing up, I buried myself in the lore of Star Trek, idolizing its main character, mimicking his mannerisms and persona. You were on very shaky ground with me if you ever criticized the Captain or his show to my face. There was a need for escape during those formative years of my life, and I have since learned that I used my affinity with Kirk as a means of burying the things that were too painful for me to deal with in the open. In a very real sense, I took my childhood pains and buried them in a metaphoric tin can somewhere out there in my backyard. And now as an adult man, searching desperately for the source of buried anger, hidden pain and modes of operation, I have stepped out into that old backyard in the misty dark of midnight with nothing but a flashlight, shovel and the tattered pieces of a old, hand-drawn map marked with an “X” saying “this way to buried treasure” sketched out so many years ago.
Captain Kirk, to me, was a lonely man. Sure he had friends, advisers and a great many lovers, but at his core, when you stripped away all the facades of his position, he was a man alone. The pains and mistakes of his past molded him into the person he was. His inner pain drove him to singularity, and he conquered his demons by cheating them and scrapping his way into the light.
As a kid, I had a great many demons in need of burying, and though I had no understanding or knowledge of the language or techniques of psychology, I found an ally in the starship captain when I effectively buried in him the things with which I was unable to cope. When I was six-years-old, my older brother and I were repeatedly sexually abused by an older man who was supposed to keep watch over us while our single mother was working as a waitress. Knowledge of these goings-on were kept very secret. My brother and I, under threat, never said anything of the incidents to our mother. The sexual abuse, along with years of physical abuse became the stuff of hidden baggage much later in my life. The anger and rage at being controlled, and the fear of being abandoned that manifested in me as a child, found a secure burial when I discovered Captain Kirk, a “father” who would take away the pain. These weren’t conscious, cognitive actions on my part, but rather the natural subconscious survival techniques of a mind too young to know how to deal with what went wrong.
The memories of the abuse never left me, but because I buried the feelings, those memories faded from full, vibrant color to back-and-white with a few shades of grey. When I reached the age of adulthood, I could recount the memories of the abuse, but never get in touch with how it actually affected me inside – and, quite frankly, I was oblivious to the damage that had been done.
In a very real sense, Kirk was the key to the unraveling of the mystery of my buried past. As I grew older, i grew less and less enchanted with the fantasy of Star Trek and its characters, and more into the mechanics of how a program like that was created and developed. I found that as I matured and in all earnestness sought to reconcile my past and dig for the missing pieces, Kirk became less and less of a necessity. I realize this now, but back then I had no clue of what was happening. The understanding has come with the retrospect.
As I began to learn more about myself and how to cope with the pain of the past, the Captain simultaneously became less of a hero figure and more of what he actually was – a fictional television character. As i learned to deal with my past, he became less important. In a sense, he held my pain until i was able to handle it myself. Funny how the mind works.
As I became a young man, I had no clue as to the nature of my buried issues, and it wasn’t until I hit early thirties that a lot of this stuff even started to surface. By that time, Kirk had long since passed into the realm of childhood hero, replaced with a fondness that attached itself to the memory of how much I had idolized him as a kid, and respected the actor who created him. And I am convinced it is because he carried my pains.
But there is even more.
When I was in my mid-thirties, I started seeing a therapist as a result of a marriage that was falling apart. I wanted to find out what was really making me tick, because it seemed as if not all the puzzle pieces were on the table. In one particular session, the therapist offered up a new technique she was using that involved a sort of mild, waking hypnosis. She held a pencil in the air between us and moved it from side to side. As she did this, she asked me to focus on any picture that came into my mind. She said to not re-live and experience, but to observe the memory as if it were being projected on a movie screen, or passing by my eyes, outside the window of an imaginary train on which I was a passenger. She made no suggestion, but merely asked me to concentrate on the first image that entered my mind. I do not know why, but the first image that popped into my mind’s eye was a rather disturbing experience that took place when I was about eight or nine years old. In this “movie” playing back in my head, I saw a memory in which my brother and I were cowering on the kitchen floor where we were being severely beaten with a belt by our very angry mother. This beating was more than a mere disciplinary spanking, it was an outright anger-driven lashing. She was attempting to get one of us to confess whose belt it was she had found lying on the kitchen table. We both insisted it was the other’s, and she commenced whipping us with it until one of us would ‘fess up. I remember we were shrieking in pain and crying wildly at each lash of the belt. By the time she had worn through her anger, my brother and I were covered from neck to calves with purple, black and blue welts. The beatings were so severe, that during our park board swimming lessons the next afternoon, the instructors made us wear our tee-shirts into the pool so no one would see the markings left by the punishment.
I looked at my therapist and mumbled something like, “Shit. I don’t know where that came from.” She very calmly told me to simply go with that incident and continued to move the pencil back and forth, asking me to concentrate on that image and tell me anything else that came to my mind. What I saw next made me chuckle in discomfort and wonder if I was simply conjuring up images out of my head that had no bearing on what she was attempting to accomplish. “What do you see now, she asked, “Don’t worry if it seems funny or weird, just go with what you see.”
What I saw next was an image of Captain Kirk, dressed in his gold-shirted, black trouser and booted uniform, kneeling on the floor next to me while I was being beaten. His arm was up in the air, blocking the blows being administered with the belt, while his other arm was wrapped around my shoulders, holding me close in protection.
I looked at the therapist and shook my head, and again laughed out of the discomfort of not knowing why this particular image was coming into my head. She again assured me it was fine and to continue going with the imagery and relating what came next. The scene in my head morphed from the kitchen floor to the concrete stoop outside the back door of our house, where Captain Kirk sat next to me, his arm around my shoulder, comforting me as I cried. Then the image of a religiously stereotypical Jesus Christ, clad in long white tunic and a red robe faded into the picture. Jesus was sitting on my other side, while both he and Kirk enveloped me in the middle, wrapped in their arms.
Then it was all gone.
I sat back and was weeping in front of the therapist, not understanding what the hell all that imagery was all about, and what exactly it had to do with anything I was going through. It was then that she told me I would not believe how many men my age had similar sorts of images of Captain Kirk during this sort of therapy. She went on to explain how Kirk was for me – and apparently many other young boys of my age group – the hero that was more than a hero. Kirk was a sort of psychological savior who boys looked to for strength and a way to cope.
So what does all this have to do with being a dad? Easy. In a very real sense, the fictional character of James T. Kirk became what I believe to be a divinely appointed receptacle for the issues that God knew I was just not able to handle. And as I grew stronger and more able to cope with these issues, God, began releasing the facts. Of course you have to believe in a Higher Power for any of this to make any sense beyond the simple psychology of it all. My quest is still a work-in-progress, but I feel as though every day is a step in the right direction toward healing and overcoming my past. I do not camp my life at the foot of my past, I simply now know where to look as a starting point.
Something else I learned through all of these experiences – and this delves deeper into an issue of faith: God is there for me to dump on. God craves my trust and waits with open arms to receive my mess.
As a Father and a Dad, I want to instill in my children a trust in me. I want them to grow up knowing who their father is, and that their dad is always available. I want them to grow up knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that they can dump on me and have full faith that I am there to receive them as they are and hold them up. And as they learn to trust and have faith in me, they will inevitably learn to trust and have faith in God. After all, God established fatherhood as a picture of what he ultimately is to humankind.
A valuable lesson I learned out of my past is this…. Dads (or Moms, as the case may be) are the best “portrait of God” children will ever have. Don’t let them find that picture in someone else or something else. Give kids what they are by nature craving. Be there for them, and show them a little bit of God.