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Michael Turns Three
MICHAEL BARNETT ON MICHAEL BARNETT
I was born in San Bernardino, California, in August of 1958. My mother's doctor was on vacation when she went into labor. Her doctor had failed to anticipate he wouldn't be present at this time, so had also failed to tell anyone that my Mom had narrow hips, and would be unable to give birth naturally. 58 hours later, with baby's head firmly wedged in the birth canal of which he could not pass, with both mother and son in serious distress, and in real danger of permanent injury or death, they finally reached Mom's doctor and he spoke the single magic word that would save the situation, "Cesarean". Despite my difficult start--and having my head shaped like a football for several months--I survived and flourished. I was the first son of Gilbert Eugene and Glenda Jean Barnett, in a family that would include three additional boys over the following five years.
My family: (mom and dad, Gerald (b. Jan. 1960), James (b. May. 1962), and David (b. May. 1962) led a mostly uneventful life, interrupted by the occasional trip or vacation, or emergency. Our dad was working towards his degree at the college literally across the street. We had a dog named Inga, a tree fort in a large walnut tree in our back yard, and a fully functional playhouse.
My best memories from those early years began when I was three in 1961. My first book, Eden Fading, chronicles those early memories of tragic events, and wonderful redemption from 1961 through 1966. Basically, for still unknown reasons, I tried to kill my younger brother Gerald, again and again. The first time, I coaxed him into drinking lighter fluid. Next, I tried to strangle him with a hangman's noose my dad had carelessly left within my reach. I even pushed him out of the top of the walnut tree, knocking him out, and he still has headaches until this day.
In 1967, we moved several miles away, but to us kids, it felt like cross country. We were still living in San Bernardino, but walked to school in Rialto. Those were fast changing and turbulent times, and being thrown into a new school didn't help things. During our years at this house, we first began to experience the racial problems prevalent in Southern California then. It was an exciting time of my life, but also very confusing. Around this time, Dad had better jobs, so didn't have to work the overtime we were so accustomed to. Because of this, he was able to get us boy's involved in Cub and Boy Scouts, and sports. Over the next five years, our dad became our scoutmaster and baseball coach. When he wasn't coaching, he and mom would attend every other sporting event; football practice and games, track, and swimming. Between scouts and sports for four boys, and bi-weekly trips to Elsinore, where our Mom's parents and brothers lived, we were busy almost every day. Also during these years for reasons both my fault, and not, I was getting into fights almost every day either at school, or on my way to and from school. For the "At school" fights, I would be spanked by the principal, then he would more often than not, drive me home where my mom would spank me. Several hours later, my dad would get home, then he would spank me. I used to call this a "three-fer". For those of you who are not familiar with the geography of Southern California, it is possible during the year, to go skiing or sledding in the mountains in the morning, then drive to the beach where you can go sledding all afternoon. We did this very thing many times because we could. I don't think there are too many places on earth where you can do this.
In 1972, my grandpa died, and shortly after that, my parents decided we would move back to Lafayette Indiana, Dad's boyhood home. The culture shock was extreme and immediate. In California, we had a very eclectic mix of every race you can imagine. For the time, I didn't yet realize how unique this was. In Indiana, my entire junior high school of 800 were all caucasian, with the exception of a single latino-american boy who quickly became one of my best friends. During seventh grade, I first read Tom Sawyer, then Huckleberry Finn. Forget about all of the social and political statements Samuel Clemens made in these books, I missed it completely. What I got out of these books, from my youngster perspective was that we could go out into our woods (which we had named Barnett woods), and do whatever we wanted. Like Tom and Huck, we could make an adventure out of whatever came to mind; building tree forts, claiming an island on the Wabash river as ours, and sailing a raft we made by hand down the Wabash river, with no plan of where we would end up or how we would get home. The raft was a partial success. It looked river-worthy, but as soon as we got it into the river, it started to sink, and we couldn't stay on top of it anyway. In this case, our sense of adventure far outweighed our engineering and building skills, and I am certain we were better off that it sank anyway. We missed California terribly because of all the places you could go, and all the things you could do. We experienced our first winter, and unlike the mountains of California, we couldn't just drive for a half hour to get away from it. Instead of succumbing to the depression that could have gripped us from the unrelenting cold, being the adventurous boys we were, we spent our winters designing and building sled runs out in the woods. We even used to ride our bikes down the frozen ice of creeks for miles...not knowing how thick the ice was, or how deep the water was under the ice. During this time, I started to develop as more of an athlete. Considering that we played sports year round in California, for the first year, I had an unfair advantage over the other kids.
I have often estimated that while I lived in California, I was in more than a hundred fights, and you had to keep proving yourself, no matter what my previous record was. In Indiana, I was challenged to a fight on my very first day of school. Knowing how this thing worked, how you should never back down, I accepted the challenge to meet the champion in the front lobby of the school after the last bell rang. Of course, I knew I would miss my bus, but that was a minor concern. I waited for half an hour and he never showed. I ended up calling my mom and asking her to come and get me. The next day, a kid I didn't know came to my locker and told me that he was representing the tough kid who didn't show the night before. He told me that Rick couldn't believe I had actually showed up for the fight, that nobody had ever done that. He further explained that Rick now wanted to be my friend. Over the course of the next few years, because I didn't have fighting to distract me, my grades began to improve dramatically. I won the Science Fair during my 9th grade year, and although I had made the A/B honor roll several times, I first received my all A report card. I have often wondered, if we would have stayed in California instead of moving to Indiana, how different would I be now? Would I have ended up a criminal, or a bum? I am a firm believer that everything happens for a reason, and what was meant to be happened.
Another significant event in my life was when I broke my hip in 8th grade track. Up until then, I was the star in every sport I tried. My 8th grade football coach asked me whether I wanted the best offensive player, or defensive player trophy, since he didn't feel right giving me both. I broke my hip for two reasons. First, I was screwing around with a pole vaulter from another school. We were betting how close to the pit we could get on the runway and still clear the height. We did this during warm-up's but decided we would keep doing it during competition. My dad came to the meet from work and was watching me from the other side of the field, and was not happy with what he was seeing. Before he could get there to stop me, I launched myself at the starting height of 8' 6" from a mere ten feet away. The second reason came into play as I pushed off of the runway. For any of you who understand Pole Vaulting and the physics involved, it is the process of converting running energy into the pole, then back into the person, throwing him up and over the bar...hopefully. Because I had no energy from running, I tried to over-compensate by pushing off hard with my left leg. Very hard. An interesting fact about the human body is that we don't have our complete bone structure in place until we are 18. At 14, I still had a lot of cartilage including between my femur and hip bone. My femur separated from my hip in an explosion which ripped out all of the cartilage and new bone as it went. I remember feeling the break throughout my body, and how I became paralyzed from the pain. At hat moment, all of my dreams of being a star athlete someday, were destroyed. I tried to come back over the following years, but I was just a shadow of my former self. In my fathers eyes, athletics were so important, every time I failed, I became more of a failure in his eyes. Because I had always worked so hard at making my dad proud, this was a devastating psychological injury. But, this was also what moved me more towards school and a future that would matter to me in the long run
And as always, life marches on.