Excerpt: A Drifter

Part V Of 'While Innocents Slept'

After his graduation from Friendly High School, on June 30, 1974, Garrett drifted. Surprisingly, his parents, who always said their son would be a doctor when he reached adulthood, had given him no education plan or real push in any scholarly direction insofar as what he should become. Eldred and Ethel never drove him to visit a university campus. Grades, remembered as mostly A and B marks, and SAT scores between 1200 and 1300 were good enough to get him admitted to most colleges. His parents never even encouraged him to apply. Eventually, Garrett took a couple of business courses at a local community college and that became the extent of his higher education. Instead he became good at golf, played piano on weekends at Lyle's (a steak restaurant near his house), and, with Eldred's help, got some short-term menial jobs in the government. They were usually at the U.S. Capitol, where he toiled as a $3.15-per-hour carpenter's helper, and later, as an elevator operator for five dollars an hour.

Garrett's father also found him his first steady employment. In November of 1975, he pushed his son into taking a position in the computer division of Riggs Bank at the corner of 9th and F Streets in Washington, one block from FBI headquarters. The salary was $240 a week. Since Eldred had jump-started his own career at Riggs, it was assumed Garrett would surely want to follow in Eldred's footsteps. The job was far from glamorous. The bank started him out on the midnight-to-dawn shift in an interior room.

A year out of high school, Garrett had become, at best, a weekend piano player and a graveyard-shift banking clerk. Did he want more? If he had higher dreams and ambitions, they were not evident to those who knew him well.

His parents seemed happy to drift. Eldred was forced to retire from his job at the U.S. House of Representatives within days of Garrett's high school graduation. After twenty-eight years of government service, his health had been poisoned from a lifetime of too much liquor and far too many cigarettes.

"I remember my mother appearing at the end of Friendly High School's stadium in the fall of 1973," Garrett remembered. "I was runnintrack after a wrestling practice. She was petrified with fear. My father had collapsed at the Capitol and we had to go to pick him up. It was an emphysema attack. He couldn't function anymore."

Eldred received 80 percent of his salary, and was guaranteed yearly cost-of-living increases after he ended his career. He appeared to be financially set for the rest of his life.

It was doomed to be a short and unhappy retirement. His health was failing badly. By now he needed to clamp an oxygen mask over his face several times each day. Ethel's condition was worse. Her clogged heart was severely damaged. The arteries that provided blood to the life-giving organ had been partially blocked for years.

In 1970, Ethel walked outside the house to saw down some tree limbs in the backyard. After the chore, she felt a burning inside her breast. Ethel thought she had torn a chest muscle. A few days later, when she went to her doctor, he told her that besides the injury, she had also suffered a third coronary. Her heart had been damaged further because of her stoic refusal to seek medical attention for the pain.

Whatever status Eldred had once enjoyed on Capitol Hill quickly evaporated. When he tried to return to the hallowed U.S. House of Representatives, he was embarrassed.

"I went with Dad when he attempted to go back to the Sergeant at Arms office for a visit after he retired," Garrett recalled. "He was wearing a loud Hawaiian shirt, some funny-colored slacks, and moccasins. The clothing was totally out of character for him. When he tried to get on the elevator he had been whisked up in every day he worked there, the operator didn't recognize him. He argued with my father about whether he should let him get on. Dad never went back."

Neither Ethel nor Eldred had any wants left. Experiencing the joys of world travel or attempting something new during their senior years was not part of their personalities. They were content enough just to drink, smoke, and occasionally indulge themselves with a night out at a booze-and-beef chain restaurant until the end of their days. With no urgency in their lives, they felt no need to take risks or take on challenges. Their health was now in steep decline and became their primary concern. These frequent medical traumas, combined with Eldred's ever-increasing expenditures on liquor and cigarettes, also prevented them from partaking of luxuries.

"Yeah, I did have good grades-a 3.2 high school average," Garrett recalled. "The reason I never made a commitment to go further in school is because there was always a crisis of some kind at home. Every time I tried to focus on a career, something would happen to their health. I think I always had the idea in my mind of becoming some sort of performer, but that never worked out."

By the end of 1975, his father's alcoholism had progressed to a point where on most nights he would drink himself ino a liquor-induced coma. Eldred often fell down or stumbled badly as he made his way up to his bedroom. On one occasion, a drunken fall fractured a bone in the lower part of his spine, immobilizing him for months. The cigarettes and the scotch had exacted a severe price. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1970. A year later, a diseased kidney was removed, followed by the gall bladder, with the final signs of emphysema beginning to painfully immobilize his body. He had to take medicine to keep his pancreas functioning.

Eldred's once handsome face now appeared unhealthy, a beet red mass of inflamed broken blood vessels. He began to gasp with each step, unable to walk more than a few feet at a time. Garrett became both the family bookkeeper and the parental caretaker while barely out of his teens. None of these medical nightmares put any damper on his father's drinking and smoking, though. Stubborn to the end, Eldred did make the concession of switching to low tar and nicotine cigarettes, but immediately neutralized any benefit by upping the number he smoked by a pack a day.

"My mother would come down after he was asleep and talk with me about ways we could get him to cut back. But my dad would never consider any of this for a moment."

Garrett Wilson said he knew both of his parents were slowly dying before his eyes. He always thought his dad would go first.

Garrett's reign as the Casanova of Caltor Manor eventually got him into trouble. In the mid-1970s, lie met an eighteen-year-old brunette named Shelly at a Baptist Church in nearby Camp Springs, Maryland. Shelly had been a year behind Garrett in school and was a senior at Friendly's sports nemesis, Crossland High.

Both must have slept through the normal fire-and-brimstone Baptist Church sermons. They quickly became intimate, and within months Shelly was with child in the most biblical sense of the phrase. Garrett promised to marry her so the child wouldn't be labeled a bastard, and he did that, on March 17, 1976, at a courthouse ceremony in Upper Marlboro, the Prince George's county seat. Shelly was seven months pregnant at the time the ceremony was performed. Both of them were still in their teens. Still, Garrett lived up to his rakish reputation by secretly dating one of Shelly's rivals, a blonde looker named Kim, before and after the short-lived wedding. The day after the ceremony, Shelly announced they were separated. The news was given in writing to the courts by her just-hired divorce lawyer, Gary Alexander.

A boy, whom Shelly named Billy Alan, was born on May 16, 1976. Garrett would never take part in the infant's care, and after Shelly fulfilled the state's requirement of a year's separation, she filed for divorce on the first day of April in 1977.

After the divorce complaint was filed, Garrett denied he was the father of the boy in an attempt to avoid paying child support. When he filed a financial stateent showing he had a negative net worth, Shelly's demand for child support was tabled by the divorce court judge. Her plea for financial aid was not presented again.

Eldred managed to keep the squalid affair so quiet even Ethel didn't find out. Few of their neighbors ever knew Garrett had married, fathered a boy, separated, and gotten divorced, all in the space of less than two years. Shelly moved to California and remarried. She tried to forget the youthful error.

"Shelly? I never knew about that one," said Garrett's best friend, John Farley, when asked about the relationship.

End of Chapter 1.

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Courtesy of St. Martin's Press
  • David Kohn

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