Just Popping By

 

I loved going for drives with Dad, he would always let me choose the music and never complained about my taste. It’s one of the little things that made him special to me. It made me feel like I was important, no one else let me choose the music.

Dad loved to go camping, and from a young age he encouraged me to develop an interest myself. The long drives up past Ballarat into the Victorian high country allowed for a lot of time to listen to music. Back then he drove around in a yellow tradesman van. It was one with only front seats and a large open space in the back. The windows even had flowered curtains. Similar to his house, his van was a mess. Discarded food wrappers, old drink cans and generally just filled with trash. It always had an interesting musky odour about it, not overpowering, just ever present. But hey, that's what all vans smell like right? Man I was naive.

But when we went camping he would make an effort to clean it out and remove some of the accumulated mess that had built up. Rather than use a tent, he would put a mattress down that was big enough to fit the three of us. In the corner was a small bin placed next to other camping equipment which included his metal detector.

For a good couple of years Dad tried his luck with prospecting. We would all take turns with the metal detector and pan. Carrying shovels, splitters and other tools with us to help with the excavation of any potential gold. Not that we had much luck, I only remember finding a small piece of quartz with a tiny vein of surface gold. Not worth enough to even bother melting down.

Those trips were fun when Dad was sober, or at least functionally high. We would talk, prospect and play. I loved kicking a hacky sack around in the small openings between the trees. But later on as the day progressed Dad would get more and more stoned. Withdrawing into himself and leaving us to our own devices. The more he withdrew, the less he talked or even moved. He would just sit there and smoke.

Thus I took it upon myself to look after and entertain my younger brother. This was no easy task as he was not the most self-directed person when it came to play. I did my best to look after him, to make sure that he wouldn't burn himself on the open fire or drown in the river. He hated how controlling I was, but at least he was safe.

One-time Dad was smoking in the van with my brother and I sitting next to him. When he finished he placed the cigarette butt into the small bin. We continued to get dressed and ready for the day's activities. Two minutes later the van was alive with flames. Shooting up the inside wall, singeing the mattress and the upholstery on the back of the driver's seat. Black smoke quickly filled the confined space and began choking my lungs.

Dad and I both jumped up and sprung to action. I quickly got my brother out of the van and Dad grabbed a nearby towel and began to smother the flames. After a small battle which included me dousing the bin with river water we managed to extinguish the fire. Based on the heat produced he must have burnt himself, but I don't remember him saying a word. Dad was very stoic, with his emotions and feelings, so it is unsurprising that he didn’t mention anything about it.

Night time in the bush was the best for me. When Dad was passed out and my brother was asleep, I would lie awake in a sleeping bag beside the open fire. The soft rustling of the tall trees and gush of the distant river was soothing. Being that far away from humanity was invigorating because on a clear night it felt like you could see every star in existence. I would stare for hours lost in the beauty of the scene, listening to the music of nature and feeling the cold kiss of a night breeze offset by the radiant warmth of the fire.

A few days later we would head home, a joint in Dad’s hand and my music blasting. All things considered, those trips were quite enjoyable.

...

Music has a way of framing my memory of events. Every song or artist I listen to is strongly attached to a person, object or issue in my life. It's like the association of smell. You know how when you smell something, like roast lamb and rosemary in the oven, it instantly brings you back to your grandma’s dining room table? The memories just grab you, you have no choice in the matter. Music does exactly the same for me.

So now every time I hear songs from The Offspring's 'Americana' album, my favourite at the time, I am reminded of the following circumstances. The release date of the album suggests that I was in primary school, most likely grade three. This would make me about nine to ten years old and my brother about four. Although I really can’t think of a time when this wasn’t happening.

 “I'm just popping by.”

Dad would say as he jumped out of the car. He would walk to the front door and talk to the people inside. Then two or three minutes later he would come back, hop into the driver’s seat and we were off. Dad sure did have a lot of friends. He was always visiting his mates and people were always coming around.

For a while there I never understood what was going on. Dad was extremely social but didn't hang out with most of his ‘friends' for more than a couple of minutes at a time. I assumed they were busy or that Dad had other people to see and could not afford to spend too long with each person.

“I hope I have this many friends when I am older.”

I would pray, hoping that my social situation would improve. Every weekend we would go driving, on the way to a supermarket to pick up some groceries Dad would ‘pop in' to a friend's house. Going for a drive to the beach? Another 'pop in'. That was his life, he was an extremely social man.

It wasn't until I was in around grade three that I realised exactly what was happening. On practically every car trip that my father took us on, he was dealing. I'm not sure what the average product turnover rate is for dealers, or the amount of customers per day that the average dealer has. But based on the volume of transactions, I would have to assume that Dad was quite successful in his trade. If only he could have turned his skills in product management and personal delivery services into a legitimate career.

Imagine the sort of person that would take their children on drug deals. What was he thinking? I could never fathom exposing a child to that world. Thinking about it makes me question his sanity as well as his love for us. Either he didn't realise the risk he was putting us in, or he was purposely and repeatedly exposing his children to a highly volatile and dangerous world that most people will never see.

When we were at home, his friends would always be 'popping around' for a quick visit. We would often be interrupted from our play or sleep with knocks on the door, and if we didn’t respond quick enough, the windows of our bedrooms. Some of the time Dad greeted them personally and after a quick discussion they left. Often however, I would answer the door because Dad had told me to let them in. They would sit down on the couch next to me while they waited for Dad to 'get the stuff'.

I hated them, they were always there, always 'popping in'. I just wanted to spend time with my dad in peace but they were there all the time. Before I realised that Dad was dealing I assumed that these people were normal. I mean I realised that they were a bit odd, but I didn't really understand the gravity of the situation. Once I understood the truth, I hated them even more.

Most of these people looked and smelt worse than Dad. Derelict losers who seemingly had never heard of a shower in their lives. On their gaunt faces they wore vacant expressions that were juxtaposed by the strain of near constant coughing. Talking to them was the worst. All they could manage was a slow and strained drawl, often slurring their words. They would pause in the middle of a sentence like they were waiting for the other side of their brain to catch up from lag. And my God they would never shut up with their pointless rambling sentences that would bounce between topics constantly. Every interaction with them was excruciating.

“Zaaac, your farrrtherr, he, he's a gooood mann. Did you knooow that? He is aaallllways talking bout you and how happy he is bout your things that your’re doooing. Did you know? ... Anyway I’m just waiting around. Waiting for him ...  Have you seen the footballll recently? I haven't but a maaaaate of miiiiine told me about something on the TV once about a gaaame show. What have you been doing todaaaay? Zaaac your dad is a gooooood man you know?”

It didn't matter what you said back, or even if you said anything back. They would just ramble on and on until Dad returned. Then as quick as that, they would just up and leave. At least Dad was talking to his mates about how proud of me he was, that's something I suppose.

Being left alone with those people was a nightmare, looking back I am legitimately surprised that I was not abducted or killed, it is quite miraculous really. I was always concerned that one day one of these crazy people would snap. Randomly just flip out and try to rob or kill us. Who knew who they were or where they had come from? It would have been quite easy to pull a knife and overcome a child and an out of shape old addict.

When they would interact with me I did my best to ensure that I was saying the right things and acting in the right way so as to not provoke them. I made sure to maintain eye contact, not too much, but still some. I would nod and respond to their conversation, trying not to anger them. I did my best to keep the peace, I had to keep them engaged until Dad came back and they would leave. In order to keep us safe, I always had to be on around those people, always be ready to fight or run, maintaining a constant state of alertness. To this day I struggle to relax. Feeling constant tension and anxiety where there is no logical reason for it to be there. I find myself always wanting conversations to end quickly so that I can be alone.

I would often ask Dad to not let them in and to tell them to not come around. But to no avail. He would always respond with:

“I have to let them in, they are my friends, besides don't stress, they are just popping by!”

When I was old enough to realise what was going on, I became extremely frustrated with the whole situation. But being so young, I couldn't do anything to change my role in it, I couldn't fight and I couldn't run. I was trapped. What's more, I was aware that my father was a criminal, I was aware that he was a dealer and that these people were his clients. I knew that he was wilfully endangering us, his children, for money. He really didn't care.

I couldn't pretend any more, I couldn't tell a big enough lie to cover the sad truth that was my life. Ignorance would have been a welcome bliss. I couldn’t forget or ignore what was going on, so I turned inward, played music loudly and retreated into a dark room. Forcibly cramming your eyes closed with the volume turned all the way up is almost an escape.

...

Listening to music as a family is one of the few positive lessons that I will take from my dad in relation to parenting. I really liked how mature it made me feel to be able to choose the songs. How loved I felt when we shared music and the happiness gained from pumping the volume up loud, regardless of where the car was travelling to.

On the other hand, where the car is travelling to also matters, as does who you expose your children to on a regular basis.

'Just Popping By', is chapter 4/10 of 'Under the Influence - Reclaiming my Childhood'
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