My dad, James Whitmore, Part Ten

Oui…

I loved it when girls said “yes” to me. The universe would open wide and this embrace of infinity would encircle me with warmth, comfort and euphoria. Sometimes, just maybe, happiness was not too far behind.

But I had other pressing challenges at hand needing immediate attention.

I had to get in this bizarre school called Callison College. It didn’t have any grades. You couldn’t even flunk. It was the late 60s and everybody was experimenting. It was more expensive than College of the Pacific, which is where I had been accepted. C.O.P., as it was called, was a traditional college. Traditional expectations. Grades. Attendance. All that kind of real stuff.

Callison College – one of a few cluster colleges housed on the University of Pacific site – didn’t sound anything like C.O.P. It sounded totally insane. First off, it focused on international studies. Your sophomore year was in India. This is the place to be. No grades. Attendance, yes, but work at your own pace kind of thing. If you didn’t do well, you received a “no credit.” You didn’t flunk. Problem was it was late in the summer and the real semester was going to start in a couple weeks. Rosters were set. Classes and dorms assigned.

I rooted out one of the Callison teachers and they thought it was too late also for the Fall semester but maybe later. No go. I had to get in right away. He mentioned I could talk to the provost. I did. Found him in the hallway one day and pestered him with admittance questions. He was slightly taken aback as I remember – having this crazed energized bunny with wild Bob Dylan-like hair sermonizing on the vitality of my attendance at Callison. Probably, out of sheer frustration, he pushed back, saying he would look into the possibility but not to get my hopes up.

A few days later, I gently busted into his office and asked again. He said he’d looked into the situation and my grades were not the caliber required for the school. I would not be deterred. I proselytized on the difference between grades and creative accomplishments. I hammered home the theory that this school held the key to my future. He smiled. I think he may have even laughed. He finally said that he would take my request to the board – whatever that was – but before that was done, I should write an essay on why I should be a student at Callison.

Easy. Can’t be that hard. Wait a minute, I thought. I’m going to write them something they won’t ever forget. Ego, yes. Confidence, for sure. I got that from my dad. He always said it didn’t matter what others thought, it only mattered what you thought. “Just as long as it didn’t hurt anybody else.” I will always remember that.

I did have one small problem: I didn’t know anything about international studies. I didn’t really know where Stockton, California was, and I was in it. So, I wrote a poem – of sorts.

To be honest I can’t remember the poem’s content but I remember the title: “The Autobiography of a Jamaican Strongman or Spontaneous Scientific Thought Concerning Western Civilization.” Now if that wasn’t enough, I wrote the poem in the form of pictures; I used the words to form curved lines, circles, squares.

There was this girl who’d taken a shine to me, God only knows why, and she volunteered to write the entire piece in calligraphy. And she did. She wrote the entire piece with all its movements, curvatures, pictures, circles, squares, etc., in beautiful calligraphy.

And she wrote it on an entire roll of paper towels stolen from one of the dormitory bathrooms. These were the brown paper towels that were one long sheet. You would pull them out from below and then tear them off to dry your hands.

She put this entire piece on one long, brown paper towel in beautiful calligraphy. Then we burnt the edges to make it look ancient, rolled it up and tied it together with a red ribbon. I turned it in and was accepted on the spot. Probably my dad’s fame and fortune had something to do with it as well. In any event, I was off and running into a school staffed by crazed professors finding their way in this new world of education. And I was leading a pack of students dying to try new things, be different, see different, catch the wind and fly as high as you can. We were all “…Bozos on this Bus,” as the Firesign Theatre said in its comedy album. And we were raring to go.

Part Eleven: India, closing the school by protests. Getting booted out of India onto the streets of Tehran, the capital of Iran.

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My dad, James Whitmore, Part Nine

Always a next step. Upon graduation from high school – something many of us believed would never happen – college loomed overhead like impending doom.

Nobody in my family had finished college except my dad. He’d graduated from Yale. He pushed hard for me to go to college. It was a tough sell.

First off, I had graduated from a private school, Oakwood. I was in the third graduating class from the school. Yes, I received A’s my senior year. In fact, all A’s. That’s right straight A’s. But at Palisades High I never went to class and had pretty much flunked out.

I didn’t care about college. I had done well at Oakwood, but it had gone to my head so I pretty much screwed up any foundation to go further. I had been arrested. Spent time in jail initially for drunk driving but that was reduced to a reckless driving charge.

I was still this petulant, immature child, feigning indifference, when in fact I was scared. I was scared of leaving home, scared of school, scared of people – just scared.

Dad kept pushing. He wanted me to live a life worth living; something I’ve said before. Applications went out and if memory serves, he actually filled out the applications with me.

You know a moment of recognition here: My father never gave up on me and never left me wanting. I was still drinking. Still getting arrested. Still being a selfish little imp. Dad never looked back. This series of columns is about his commitment to his family, not about inside Hollywood stuff. Well, there will be a little of that like the time I was photographed with my father walking to a telethon he was doing. I was drunk, of course, and he was forgiving. The picture appeared in some paparazzi magazine with the notification that James Whitmore’s son appeared intoxicated. I do remember that night. I was drunk, but also I met Henry Fonda. I remember that because I was struck by his kindness and his majesty. Yep, his majesty. This was a movie star. You could tell. He definitely made an impression. Positive. I had just met the president of these here United States. Henry Fonda was a real movie star. I remember that.

Most colleges rejected me. A couple accepted me with conditions. One of those colleges was the University of the Pacific. It was in Stockton, California. A beautiful campus. I went up to see it with my current girlfriend and mom and dad. They loved it. I was still acting as if I didn’t care. Just went along for the ride.

Tough to drink when you’re surrounded by family and girlfriends. I had to share a motel room with my father while my girlfriend and mom slept in another room. My dad had violent nightmares and he had one this night, where he jumped out of bed screaming. Scared the shit out of me. I tried to hide under the covers but he was looking right over at my bed. Glowering, yelling incoherently. After a moment, his nightmare subsided and he crawled back into bed and I crawled outside after grabbing the car keys from the night stand and slept in the station wagon parked in the motel parking lot. I was used to sleeping in cars by this time and I didn’t want to end up as sushi prepared by James Whitmore.

UOP, as it is called, was a fine college. I was accepted on academic probation and had to attend summer school to take certain core classes, such as math, science and English. At the time, this was 1967-68, the air was filled with experimentation. Everybody was experimenting with something. Drugs, music, sex – you know the saying: Sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. It was everywhere and the hub of this exploration was just down the street in San Francisco and Berkeley. UOP had cluster colleges on its campus. I wasn’t paying attention. Just along for the ride.

The ride instantly turned strange when upon being assigned a dorm room, I enlisted the help of a tech guru to disconnect the dorm room speakers from the main control room downstairs in the manager’s office. The speakers were used to announce meal times, fire drills, etc. The system had become dormant because it was outdated and this was summer school; not a lot of students to attend to.

I had the tech guru disconnect the existing wiring and rewire the system so my room was the main control booth. I had a microphone, switchboard, control panel, everything.

Instead of prank announcements, which I found foolish and unproductive, I used the system for a musical show called the “The Apocalypso Show.” I had been introduced by way of my older brother who’d married a West indian by this time to Calypso music and although, the music graded on me, I loved the sound of the word: Calypso. Thus, “The Apocalypso Show” was born.

It was a radio broadcast playing rock ’n’ roll. Only a couple hours a day and during dinner so it wouldn’t interrupt class or study time. The tech guru fixed it so it was difficult to discover where the music was coming from. I refrained from using my name and off we went. I played the best rock ’n’ roll at the time – uninterrupted. No commercials. Full, complete songs. At the time I was a big fan of Frank Zappa and his strange, opera-like tome, Lumpy Gravy, was a favorite of mine. There was a lot of swear words and sexual innuendos in Zappa’s stuff. Bob Dylan was played. Miles Davis, John Lee Hooker, early Elvis. You name it, we played it as long as it was solid rock ’n’ roll or solid jazz. Real music. My definition, of course, but it took off.

People starting listening and leaving positive notes in the downstairs lobby. “We love the show.” “It’s hilarious.” “The music is great.” “Keep it up.” those kinds of things. Of course, the establishment hated this pirated use of its equipment and set out to shut it down. It took a while but they eventually did find me, busting into my room during a broadcast and cutting the power. We were done.

The school ordered me expelled. I didn’t give up anybody else. Didn’t have to. They were well hidden. My dad came to my defense and argued that my creativity was beyond measure and would benefit the school. I didn’t say anything but I did have fun doing that show. However it happened, why it happened, I will never know, but the school did not throw me out. Added more restrictions to my probation, but allowed me to stay. Maybe money was involved. I do not know.

I stayed and after a few weeks into the summer, I hear about this school that didn’t have grades. I had been accepted to the College of the Pacific – a traditional college with grades, et al, but there were cluster colleges on campus. Other kinds of schools. This school I was hearing about didn’t even flunk you. And it was right here at UOP. That’s my kind of school.

Part Ten: Callison College. Kicked out of India. Back on the streets.

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My dad, James Whitmore, Part Eight

So, back to dad. Mom was more than great. The last column showed that. I will address more of her support later but now back to dad.

Dad found Oakwood High School for me and it changed my world. For the first time in my short life, I was not only accepted but applauded. I was the star of all the plays done at the time. The school wanted to have a flag football team. I joined and was the quarterback, defensive safety, kicker, punter and kick returner. I was playing all the positions. We won some games but lost more than we won. But I was having a blast. My studies were going better. In fact, when I graduated from Oakwood I had brought my grade point average up to an A. My life had become special.

It went to my head. I became a legend in my own mind. I had girls. In fact, three believed they were my exclusive girlfriends. I was a liar and a cheat. Life catches up with you. The three of them met and found out and it was my hell to pay. I deserved every bit of it.

My mom came to my high school graduation and that was special. She was the only one that came from my family and I appreciated her presence. I was grateful that I was not the kid without family representation. I was still drinking, though, and that was causing problems. Arrest problems.

But first a funny story. After graduation, there were the usual parties and I went. And I drank. One moment, I was flirting with this beautiful girl. She was very interested and things were looking good. I kissed her and she embraced my advance with enthusiasm. I moved in for the kill when all of a sudden I threw up all over her and me. I had been drinking most of the day and my body decided enough was enough. Needless to say, my chance of physical intimacy with this beautiful young thing was over. Her desire was extinguished by my vomiting on her.

And being a good drunk, I got in my car and drove away only to be pulled over by the police. Back to the Los Angeles County Jail for me. After being booked, fingerprinted and assigned a cell, I was given the chance to make a phone call. I called my dad. He’d get me out of this. For sure.

Wrong. It was early in the morning when I called; maybe about 3 a.m. He picked up and the ensuing conversation is based on my foggy memory. It think it went something like this:

“Hello.” dad’s muffled voice came through the phone. Obviously, I had woke him up, like so many times before. “Hi, dad, I’m in jail. Can you bail me out?”

“No. And don’t call me any more. I’m not helping you.” He hung up the phone. Now in County lock-up there was usually a line for the phone. So when dad hung up, I was screwed. I had to figure out a way to call somebody else quickly. I did, ”saying wrong number.” Everybody yelled at me. The cops moved in to stop the second call. But it was already done. I had called my dad back to mention my full name, thinking, perhaps, he did not know who I was.

“Steve, stop calling. You’re on your own.” He not only knew who I was, he was sick and tired of bailing me out. I hung up the phone and was ushered into another room where I was issued county jeans and a jean-type shirt with a number stenciled on the back. I was in jail and I was going to stay a while.

Part Nine: Botched attempt at college. TV series. More jail.

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My mom, Nancy Richmond Mygatt, Part Seven

This project is to pay tribute to my dad, actor James Whitmore. Too often parents are maligned by their off-spring and many times it’s justified. Not with my family. I was lucky to have two great parents, which is why I’m straying from the father-path today and remind us that my mother was incredible as well.

She bailed me out of jams just like my dad did. Time and time again. She was there.

There could be an argument made, I suppose, that if my parents had not bailed me out as often as they did – they did finally stop. I will get to that later. – I would’ve gotten sober sooner. I would’ve gotten better sooner. I just would’ve been whatever sooner if they’d cut me loose sooner.

The word is “enabler.” Maybe so, but I gotta tell ya, I am so grateful for my parents today. I should’ve told them, especially mom, so much more when they were here. I should’ve thanked them, again and again. I made peace with dad before he passed. I did not with mom. I didn’t make it right with her before she passed, and that’s entirely on me. She showed me nothing but love and patience. I showed her contempt, criticism and scorn in return. I live with that everyday. And I deserve to.

One story: I was sitting in a car being driven by an individual no longer with us. It was early in the morning, like around 3 a.m. We were drunk, of course, and had borrowed the car from a relative of his without their knowledge. We were driving south on Western Avenue just below Hollywood Boulevard, Hollywood, California. We had our heads out the windows and we were singing “Say hello to Hollywood.”

Of course, the cops came and pulled us over. Arrested me. Let the driver go. Hauled me off to jail once again. This time it was Mother’s Day. Guess who I called to bail me out? That’s right. And she did.

She gathered her things. Pulled together the bail amount and came down to the Los Angeles County Men’s Central Jail to get me released. There was a slight hiccup. I was in the Army at the time during Vietnam and was supposed to be overseas. Tough to do when your behind bars. I was Absent Without Leave or AWOL as it is commonly known.

Mom spent Mother’s Day, 1973, bailing her son out of jail and not being able to see him because he needed to be turned over to the Army. I was soon to be released back to my mother’s care a few weeks later. Much to her chagrin, I might add.

I was off to Germany and then my dad announced he was going to leave my mother for another woman. They were married for 24 years, I believe, and then it was over. My mother’s allegiance to my father had been repaid with abandonment. Divorce and a family break-up. Something I’m all too familiar with. I will get to that later.

But today it’s a tribute to Nancy Richmond Mygatt, my mom. She was a much better mom than I was a son.

Part Eight: Dad leaves. Divorce shatters a family; but he still has my back.

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My dad, James Whitmore, Part Six

“I’m going to marry her!” I was screaming at my dad with all my cowardly might. “It’s what I’m supposed to do.”

“Son, take it easy for a second,” he said or something like that. I was 16 or 17. “Time will take care of this. I have to look into this. We don’t even know if it’s yours.”

“I will marry her.” My defiance was all bluster. I was not a courageous kid. I was jumpy, nervous and scared most of the time. I had a big mouth, that’s for sure, but when push came to shove, I was out of there.

Obviously, this teen-aged girl with a propensity to sleep with men had declared the child was mine. I was reacting as an immature, selfish, impulsive kid. My dad was reacting with a cool head. He hired a law firm to investigate the matter.

Moreover, my dad told me a story that may cause some ruffles in Republican circles. It was an important story because he was speaking to me as an adult. Not some petulant child, which I was, just by the way.

He told me a story of having an affair with a woman that he almost left my mother for. Her name was Nancy Davis. Shortly thereafter she would marry the future president of the Untied States, Ronald Reagan.

My dad and Ms. Davis had done a film together, “The Next Voice You Hear,” released in 1950. During that time, he said he thought he’d fallen in love with Ms. Davis and told my mother. Mom was pregnant with me. Dad told her he would stay until I was born and then he was going to leave her. My mother adored my father. Her “allegiance” was to him. (See My dad, James Whitmore, Part Two.) So, when I was brought into her life, the man she adored would leave her life.

The waiting for my arrival gave him time to think, he said. He thought of all that he was giving up in exchange for Ms. Davis. He decided to stay. That’s what he wanted me to know. At one point he was sure beyond a shadow of a doubt and then, after time, he realized he was not sure beyond a shadow of doubt. He stayed. My dad went on to raise three sons and be married for 24 years and Ms. Davis was to marry “the love of her life” and become the First Lady of the United States of America, as Mrs. Ronald Reagan.

The pregnant teen-aged girl had gone to court and declared I was the father along with several other men. My dad told me the court threw out her claim of my fatherhood. My dad had met with the father of the teen-aged girl. I do not know what transpired. What I do know is that the entire incident went away.

Meanwhile, back at Oakwood I was rehearsing this dramatic reading of “Franny & Zooey” by J.D. Salinger. I was actually doing something that caught my interest. The young girl that was playing Zooey was talented and drop-dead gorgeous. She’d acted before and brought me along for the ride. She said I had a natural talent for the theater. I didn’t like rehearsals. Smacked of work.

“Franny and Zooey” is about the Glass family. They are brother and sister. She is having a nervous breakdown and Zooey is asked to right the ship. There is a tremendous amount of introspection. The director paired it down to the most dramatic moments. The last being the big cathartic speech at the end of the book where Zooey finally explains to Franny the meaning of life. Read the book. J.D. Salinger was a rare author, indeed.

The last speech was giving off stage. I was sitting in front of a microphone and Franny was on stage listening through a telephone. All your heard was my voice and her reaction. The chapel was standing room only. I was 16 or 17 at the time and was scared down to my bone marrow.

The school had been founded by famous actors, directors, writers, composers, painters. Artists of all stripes and colors. These were the best of the best, and they were sitting in the audience. I had never done this before. I had never been in front of an audience of people. I was going to puke at any given moment.

Let’s not forget, I had been arrested a few times for public drunkenness, had been kicked out of Pacific Palisades High School, and had pretty much just said “fuck it” to the world. Excuse my harsh language but sometimes it is all that will due.

My dad would have none of it. He fought to find a school that would take me. He found one. My indifference was melting away because I was doing something that caught my interest. I had to be accountable. My selfish, impish immaturity was still in force but I was doing better. My dad had presented me with a life that might be worth living. His words. His commitment to his son.

I did the final speech off-stage through the microphone. When I was done. There was silence. I was exhausted. Read the book. Pretty heady words and thoughts. The stage manager told me to go out on stage. The play was over, he said. I did as instructed.

I opened the side door and walked out on stage. The eruption of applause was thunderous. I’m sure they were being polite but the sound of clapping, people standing, whistling, screaming out “Bravo! Bravo!” They kept applauding. The wonderful actress playing Franny took my hand and guided me through a bow. The applause did not stop. We bowed again. Again and again. I started to quietly cry. I couldn’t believe it. I saw my dad. And went to him and hugged him with all the might I could muster.

Part Seven: Too many girlfriends. Dad leaves.

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My dad, James Whitmore, Part Five

I am not using names in this series of articles about my dad because it is his legacy that matters. I am going to change that this time because Ham Smith, principal of then-newly opened Oakwood High School, changed my life forever. Forever for the good.

I need to back up just a bit. I had taken off with a teen-aged girl to parts unknown earlier in the year. I had stolen money from my dad to do so. I was 15 or 16 at the time. It was during the school year. Not only was I a missing teen, with an undercurrent of drug trafficking that wasn’t true but still an undercurrent, but truant and traveling across state lines. Things were messy because of my behavior.

My dad, James Whitmore, was an actor of some recognition at the time. He’d been nominated for an Academy Award and had starred in a popular television series, “The Law and Mr. Jones,” as well as other TV shows and movies. It was 1966 or 1967.

When I ran out of money in Elk City, Oklahoma, I called and he wired me the money to come home. I had stopped caring. Too painful, I guess. He had not. Pali High, short for Pacific Palisades High School, didn’t want me back. I didn’t care. I had a job as a delivery boy at a liquor store and was drinking as often as I could. My dad let it be known that he was going to find a school for me and he would help provide me with a life worth living.

Off we went. Together. Trying to find a private school – no public school would take me. We went to a couple in Santa Barbara. No way, they said. My grades were not even close to their standards. I think because I basically skipped my junior year, my GPA was F or worse, if that’s possible. Others said no as well. Dad even tried out of state private schools. Some back east where he had connections. They all said no. A resounding no. And remember, at the time, my dad was somewhat famous and certainly financially sound. But no school wanted to have anything to do with me.

Enter Hamlin Smith. My dad had heard of a school in the San Fernando Valley in Southern California that had just opened that might be a fit for me. It was called Oakwood School. It had been founded by fellow actors, movie directors, composers, writers, etc. In other words, artists who wanted to give their kids a better education that was not being offered in public schools at the time. I forget if it was K-12 or just junior and high school. I do remember Ham Smith, though. I will never forget him and to this day am grateful for his intelligence, wisdom and love. He cared about his students.

When I met him for the first time at his office in this converted-church like structure, he seemed disheveled; an unkept work bench. His hair was uncombed. His clothes appeared to have been used as blankets. He was, however, keenly interested in me. He asked a series of questions nobody else had asked. I honestly can’t remember the questions, but they were intriguing and forced me to pay attention. That I do remember.

After a while, he said I could come to the school but I would have to repeat the 11th grade. I didn’t care. My dad was enthusiastic about this new chapter. My dad was enthusiastic about me.

Oakwood seemed just like any other school at first, except smaller. The teachers were younger, I remember, and the classes were much smaller. Otherwise, boring as hell. Obviously, I was a spoiled brat. Not because of my parents. My brothers were not like me. They certainly had their challenges but nothing like the selfish liar I had blossomed into. They made friends easy, excelled at sports and received good grades. I had no friends, except one – a good one – and grades were absent as my attendance. The only thing I did have was girlfriends. That was never a problem.

Yes, I was getting drunk every chance I got. Before school. After school. Not easy when your 16 or 17, but alcoholics manage to find a way.

Every now and then I would see Ham Smith barreling through the school courtyard like a bowling ball. He was a force to be reckoned with. He always asked how I was doing. Always. Just being around him made life better.

Then a teacher at Oakwood who’d been volunteering at a then-successful drug rehabilitation center, Synanon, asked me a question that would change my life again. He wanted to do a play in the school’s main chapel. Oakwood to this day is still in and around that old church. The chapel was the main auditorium at the time. This was really more a dramatic reading really of a popular book of its day, “Franny and Zooey” by J.D. Salinger.

He said he needed experienced actors to do the piece. He said I had acted before. It was a statement more than a question. I said “of course” or some other lie in the affirmative; never acting a day in my life. At least, not the way he intended.

Simultaneously, the teen-aged girl I had run off with was out of my life. I had, much to my surprise, abided by my dad’s rule and had stopped seeing her until a fateful day when I saw that big, clumsy blue Cadillac she drove with the huge, pitted metal fins. Like a rumbling, cranky shark, it came down the street, coughing and wheezing behind me. She pulled up beside me. I started to tremble. I approached her car.

“Hi, Steve,” she said coyly, wearing a low-cut T-shirt. I was pretty much trembling in high-gear now. Cleavage can do that to a man, especially a teen-ager. I hadn’t seen her for months. I’m sure I mumbled something of a hello in nature.

“I’m pregnant, Steve,” she said matter-of-factly. Stunned, I still managed to ask: “Is it mine?” Smiling, she said, “I’m not telling,” and drove off. The rusty old blue shark Cadillac disappeared around a corner with a final cough from the exhaust.

Part Six: Success and more of my dad’s love protects his son from himself.

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My dad, James Whitmore, Part Four

My dad was sitting in his big leather chair. I think it was leather. This was the talk. He was going to lay down the rules.I had just returned from a road trip on his dime – in point of fact I had stolen money rom him to finance the trip – that had had taken me from my luxurious home in Rustic Canyon just below the Pacific Palisades to Elk City, Oklahoma. Elk City was not the final destination I had in mind. It was just the place I ran out of money. I telephoned home collect and my dad wired me the money and now was ready to have the talk.

It was pretty simple really. I was grounded. I was 16 or so at the time. That’s what they used to do in my day. They would ground you; meaning you were confined to the home, except for work and school. I don’t remember how long.

Next rule was no more girl. She was trouble, he said. She was trouble, but I was going to work around that rule. I liked having sex with her. Sorry for the bluntness.

That was that. The talk was over. He welcomed me home again and told me he loved me. My dad.

Now, my mother was a different story. She was angry. Thought I was selfish, arrogant and a liar. All true by the way. I stayed out of her way.

I had taken my little sojourn during the school year so I was truant. The school knew what had happened and was not so pleased to see me back. Another person not so pleased to see me back was my younger brother.

He was working hard on the football field, becoming a great high school football player. I went down on the field to see him and he shunned me as if I had a communicable disease. He wanted nothing to do with me.

The school, Pacific Palisades High School, didn’t either. I was told it would be better if I went to another school; a place where such kids with problems as mine go. I had gotten a job as a delivery boy for Bay Liquors in the Pacific Palisades. My brother had worked there, so I was hired because of the family connection.

I was sitting one day on a stool at Bay Liquors, not attending school because they had in essence booted me out, and my dad came in and asked: “What are you going to do now?” Or words to that effect. I said “nothing. Work here.”

He would have none of it. He looked at me with that intensity, eyebrows narrowed, jaw clenched, and said, “I am not going to give up on you. You are going back to school. We will find you a school.”

My dad was a powerful force for good. So, we went searching for a school that would take me. Not many takers. In fact, despite his fame and money, there were no takers. Until one day.

Part Five: False claim of pregnancy, a new school and some success.

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