Wednesday, May 29, 2013

That Time I Lived with Vanilla Ice: A True Story

All of my posts, including this post, have been grounded in my own life.  The occurrences and events are part of my life history, and they are as accurately told as any one person can be objective in the telling of their own life.  My life has been unusual, certainly not typical, but undoubtedly not wholly unique in its, frankly, fucked up path.  However, today's post highlights one of the weirder experiences.

When I was 14/15 years old, my parents visited some friends in another part of the state for a week.  I was in charge of taking care of my sisters.  I recall having a very nice time while they were gone, my sisters spent a good portion of the week having sleep-overs with friends etc.  All in all, the week of my parent's absence was uneventful.  Their return, however, was quite another matter.

My sisters and I were hanging around the house, it was probably late afternoon.  Mom and Dad were supposed to get back sometime that evening. Eventually they arrived, and as they came into the house my father ushered in a young guy, probably in his early-mid 20s.  He was wearing a tattered baseball cap and a severely faded NFL starter jacket, probably from the late 90s.  This guy had a pretty big backpack and his head was shaved, which was especially apparent after he removed his hat.  He wore cheap wraparound sunglasses, and he was eerily quiet and detached.

I had no idea who this person was, however, sometimes my parents would invite friends to visit and I thought he might be their friend Doug.  We were all standing in the kitchen, and the silence was awkward so I asked, "Who's this?"  With a smile on his face, my dad replied, "We have no idea.  Picked him up just this side of Hayes."  We all laughed a bit, I thought my father was joking.  When he didn't clarify who the creepy guy in our kitchen actually was, I asked my mom in a serious tone, "Really, Mom, who is he?"  My mother gave me a somewhat frantic, helpless, and wide-eyed head shake accompanied by, "I really don't know.  He's a hitchhiker, your dad thought we should pick him up."

I should note that my father has a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder I which he now manages with medication.  As I was growing up, there were numerous instances of both manic episodes and depressive episodes, and my father only self-medicated with alcohol at the time.  Impulsively choosing to pick up a hitchhiker over the protestations and concerns of my mother was a good indication of my father's (poor) functioning at the time mental-health wise.  He later came to realize this.    

The hitchhiker's name was least at first report, more on that in a bit.  My parents were/are generous people, even though we didn't have much they did what they could for other people.  They offered Dennis our couch, and some money in exchange for helping around our place.  Dennis "wanted to make some money to buy a bus ticket back home."  Ever the cautious-bordering-on-overprotective-and-paranoid person I am, I constantly grilled my parents about Dennis' departure date.  My mother was at the mercy of my father for most of my entire childhood.  She did not have any power, even in this situation.  My father told me he would only be staying at most a week.  Dennis lived with us for at least two months, possibly three.  Time has blurred together for my life from ages 14-16.  My sisters remember similar time frames, however, for this event.

It was obvious from our initial encounter that Dennis was not necessarily sociable.  He always seemed uncomfortable around people, and he was unbalanced in general.  The more you interacted with him, the more it became clear he was quite mentally ill.  Not all mentally ill people are dangerous, actually very few are.  Despite this, Dennis was discomfiting and all three of us (my sisters and I) plus my mother felt completely unsafe around him.  His gaze felt inappropriate most of the time, he had a very intense presence, he spent considerable time talking to himself/imaginary others, and he routinely carried a large knife with him.  Our house was in a pretty rural area, about 10 miles from town.  Our nearest neighbor at the time was about a mile away.  Last time I checked, those elements when mixed with the presence of a hitchhiker resulted in a Capote-esq tale of death.  I created a safety plan for my sisters, and we did our best to make sure that they weren't left alone with Dennis, although at one point or another we were all in that position.  We never left the house if it would leave Mom alone with him, however.  I started sleeping with a 6 inch fixed blade buck knife under my pillow following the second week of Dennis' stay; it remained there until a solid three weeks after he finally left.  We all functioned on a hypervigilant survival mode setting and rarely let our guards down over those few months.  Living in fear and perpetually feeling unsafe is taxing, even now my sisters and I become activated when the topic of Dennis comes up.

One of the more amusing/genuinely sad interactions my sisters and I had with Dennis involved music.  We all took piano lessons starting at age 8.  When Dennis showed up, we had each been playing for a few years.  We had to practice regularly etc.  One day after we each took our turn practicing (Dennis was observing), he started asking us questions about music.  He then said, "You know, I could tell you who I really am but you wouldn't believe me."  Knowing it was going to be completely off the wall and untrue but dying to know who he "really" was, we assured him we would believe him and we would keep it a secret.  Dennis took a deep breath, looked down at the table, and said, "I'm Vanilla Ice."  He then demonstrated he was Vanilla Ice by rapping for us, doing the dance from the Ice Ice Baby video, and pulling a Vanilla Ice tape out of his pocket to show us his picture.

We managed to keep our laughter in check.  After that, though, my little sister called my brother who had just recently graduated from high school and was living in Wyoming.  My brother was...displeased...that my father had brought Dennis to our home.  He drove back home the next day and "explained to" (i.e. had a shouting match with) my father he needed to get Dennis back on the road.  My father did not listen to my brother, but my brother spoke with "us girls" and my mom to make sure we were ok.  He approved my safety plan, and he was actually the one who gave me the buck knife.  My brother also had a "talk" with Dennis about appropriate manners of house guests.  Dennis stayed for some time after the failed intervention, but my brother checked on us somewhat regularly.

After a while, my father started coming out of his manic state.  The more grounded he became, the more he saw the concerns we had.  He too began to feel uncomfortable with Vanilla Ice.  My parents bought Dennis a bus ticket home.  We drove him to the bus station, about an hour away.  I told my mom we couldn't leave until we saw the bus take off with Dennis on it.  We watched it pull away from the station, and we all smiled.  I called my brother to let him know Dennis was gone, but my sisters were still scared that he might come back.  My brother tried comforting them by explaining that Dennis had only been into town once since coming to the house, and it was unlikely he would remember how to get back after having only been up the road twice, especially because the county didn't use road signs so there wasn't a street name to remember.

My brother underestimated Dennis.  About a month after watching the bus drive away from the station, we all came home from school one day to find Dennis sitting on our deck.  My sisters and I started freaking out, by the time we made it into the house two of us were crying and one was hyperventilating.  My second youngest sister called my brother immediately, and he drove into the night to get home.  Luckily it was the weekend; I drove my sisters into town to spend the night with friends, and I stayed with my friend Cindy.  Dennis explained to my parents that his belongings and bus transfer were stolen when he was only partway through his journey home.  It had taken a month to hitchhike and find his way back to our place, which was shorter than hitching back to his home in Iowa.  My parents decided the best course of action was to have him leave as soon as possible and offered to buy him another bus ticket.  My brother explained in detail to Dennis that if Dennis returned again he would find himself at the bottom of an abandoned mine shaft, possibly in many pieces.

While nothing demonstrably traumatic happened while Dennis was staying with us, there was certainly a psychological toll.  I can definitely say thinking you might be brutally murdered in your sleep every night is something to be avoided if at all possible.  I've tried to keep up on where Dennis might be in the world since he left the second time, the advent of the internet has been very helpful.  I learned recently (today!) that he was just sentenced to 30 years in prison for a 2011 sexual assault on an elderly woman in Illinois.  I'm still processing this information and trying to put it in context with my own experience.  Overall, aside from simply being surreal, I think I just feel sad for everyone involved.      

Yo man, let's get out of here.  Word to your mother...                      


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