Here is the vivid personal account of an adolescent who found a way out of the trauma of child neglect. It is also the story of those who helped Ernie "Doc" Knapp become a successful adult and parent.
I WAS BORN in Tampa, Florida, in 1948. That much I know — because it's on my birth certificate. I have no memory or certain knowledge of what transpired over the next few years. I was told once by a social worker that my mother left me in a train station in New York City when I was 18 months old and that I was placed in an orphanage somewhere in the state of Connecticut. My earliest memories are from when I lived at the Turners' foster home in nearby Walnut Beach. The memories are vague. My brother Paul, who was three years older than I, lived with me. I do remember running on the sidewalk in the rain pretending I was a jeep, my right arm moving as a windshield wiper. I remember, too, sneaking around in the kitchen. I tasted flour and was greatly disappointed. The same was true of coffee grounds. There were times when I sat and tried to cry. I had fearful nightmares about being chased relentlessly by steam shovels all through the house. These are the only emotions I have memory of. I think that by the time I was 4 years old I had already learned the art of blocking out, repressing emotions. But I think I really wanted to feel. I don't know if I was physically abused during that period, but I know that I was on my own mentally and emotionally and that I was too young to bear that responsibility. I used to spend my lunch money to buy cigarettes and run down to the beach and smoke them with my brother and a few other kids. I recall throwing rocks through the windows of people's homes for no reason. I don't remember my earliest school years; I must have been an outcast.
Back to My Father
I went to live with my father. when I was around the age of 7. He had remarried. I can't remember feeling loved except for one time when I was ill. My stepmother prepared some Irish coffee with lemon to help me sleep. School life was a disaster. The teacher had a chart with everyone's name on it. Each day the students would get a certain color star-gold was good, red was poor — as a rating for cleanliness and appearance. I always got a red star. I was a sloppy writer and otherwise did poorly. It was a horrible experience. One day I was walking to school and had on a torn pair of pants. I cried all the way. A woman stopped and asked me what was wrong. I explained to her that I was looking at the sun and that was why I was crying. I once went over to my schoolteacher's house on a weekend. She fed me hot cereal. I don't remember what we talked about; she may have asked about my home life. I do remember that being in her house made me feel warm. It was a place I wanted to visit often. My father found out that I had visited there. He told me not to visit there again. I was confused and did not visit again. When I try to understand that now it appears as though our quasi-family was staying true to the line that family business stays at home. I think my teacher could have helped me somehow to lift the feeling of a never-ending cloudy day, of being detached from the rest of the world. I had truly become — and would continue to be throughout the rest of my childhood — locked inside myself, unknowingly unable to connect to another person, to know what others were feeling, or that others were feeling. I did whistle and that gave me great pleasure. I made up the tunes.
In an Institution
When I was around 8 my father gave me up again. I remember him driving me to an orphanage, or some sort of institution. We went inside. The place seemed enormous and cold. It felt like a prison and I felt more alone than ever. I had the choice of staying there or living at another institution in New Haven, Connecticut, where my brother Paul was living. Without even seeing the second home I was absolutely sure I did not want to live in the place where I was standing. I don't recall my initial reaction to the new institution. It must have seemed a safer place to live, perhaps because my brother Paul was there. We didn't have much of a relationship, but then I had no relationship with anyone else. The place was large. It was a two-story weathered brick building. A doorway in the north wall of my dormitory opened into a large room that had picnic tables in it. There must have been other things in it too, perhaps toys; I can't remember. Whenever the kids got too out of hand we all had to sit on the benches with our heads down on the tables. A teacher would walk along each row of kids and swat our bottoms with a hard, thick rubber strap. It was agony waiting for it, keeping absolutely still. The rubber strap was the discipline of choice and depending on the severity of the offense, the use of the strap could get rather severe. I remember one boy who after returning from running away was held down on his bed by several other boys and strapped repeatedly by his teacher. I did not consider running away after that. I began to strike out at the world by being violent with the other kids. Once one of the other boys, my friend Johnny, was in the courtyard playing when I walked up to him, said hello, and punched him hard in the stomach. He doubled over in pain. He had done nothing to provoke that reaction. It was difficult for me to cope with my life; I remained alone among 400 kids. We rarely left the institution as we also attended school there. But I started to do better in school. I was always the first one to answer oral math problems. I was exposed to religion for the first time. Becoming involved in religion offered me the opportunity to think beyond day-to-day life. It showed me that people existed who cared more about others than they did about themselves. I began to admire the sensitivity, lovingness and contentedness that these people had. Indeed, I admired most what was absent in my own life. When I was 11 and my brother 14, I was told that he had to move to a foster home because the age limit at the institution was 15. I considered no other option and decided to go with him. Most of the time there I spent alone. I began reading books about early American heroes like Daniel Boone and Kit Carson-Kit was my favorite. I spent numerous hours playing in the woods pretending to be Kit. I did a lot of work too, taking care of the chickens, helping in the garden, doing dishes and helping with the house cleaning. In the winter there was snow to shovel. I grew quite strong because the work was physically hard, like lifting 100-pound sacks of chicken feed. I lived there between the ages of 11 and 16 and for the first time had a good diet. If I had been able to become more a part of the family in an emotional sense, it might have been everything I had dreamed of. But that could not be. I felt as though they wanted good things for me, but never were able to understand me. They always compared me to one of the former foster kids who to them was everything anyone should be. It was one of those situations w here no matter w hat I did I could not please them. One thing I really hated was telling the truth and being called a liar. The tension mounted as I approached 16 and I started feeling more independent. I got to a point where I could no longer take verbal abuse and one day I told my foster mother not to touch me again. It was a tense moment. Soon after I ran away several times and was generally non-cooperative. I knew they would not tolerate that and soon my social worker came to take me to another home. The saddest part about leaving was saying goodbye to the dogs!
Friends Who Helped
I'd had seven or eight other social workers and none of them ever gave me the time of day except Bill Cohen. He was different. He first brought me back to New Haven to a home that had four or five other kids about my age. It was another home where I didn't want to be. I felt I would wind up in trouble with the law if I stayed. The other kids were juvenile delinquents, and I was a prime candidate to follow suit. I complained to Bill and told him that I wanted to move to Waterbury, Connecticut, where my friend Bill Schum lived. I had been attending high school there and Schummer — that is what we called him — was my only close friend. He was a warm, encouraging, sensitive and fun-loving boy. His father died a year or two before we met. One of the times I previously ran away was when I wanted to see him. I liked his friends and the neighborhood he lived in. That's where I wanted to live. Bill Cohen said that if I wanted to live there then I'd have to find a place on my own, and if I found one then he'd help work out the details. The idea of independently finding a place to live seemed a mountainous task, but my motivation was strong. I took a bus to Waterbury and met my friend Schummer, who knew of a few homes in the neighborhood where I might be able to find a room. He was tremendously supportive and spoke highly of me to the people who lived in the two houses we visited. The people in the first home said no. I was feeling desperate. The second home we went to was a couple of houses down the street from my friend's house. I explained the situation to Mrs. Sheehan who owned the home. She rented one room to an elderly man. I read doubt in her eyes as our conversation continued and I quickly asked if she'd talk to Bill Cohen before she made up her mind. She agreed. After talking to Bill and me together she agreed to let me live there. (The state of Connecticut paid each of the foster homes I'd lived in.) She had a few basic rules and so did I. I stated at the outset that I would run my own life and agreed to be home by 11, etc. My life had taken a turn for the better, thanks to Bill Cohen — who encouraged me to take control of my life; Schummer — who was a true and supportive friend; Mrs. Sheehan (I most often referred to her as my landlady) — who was willing to take a chance on me; and myself — who began to take control of my life, even if only a tentative, uncertain control. I was beginning to come alive. The longtime feeling of being detached slowly began to fade. For the next two years I was mostly concerned with my social life, much to the detriment of my school life. I stopped studying and my attendance was spotty. I was very uncomfortable with the social scene at school but was beginning to come alive socially with my neighborhood friends and girl friends. I seemed to feel the need for girlfriend relationships more urgently than the other fellows did. I frequented dances and at times hitchhiked in blizzard conditions to get to one. I began to get involved with folk music. I began to lose respect for authority. I started drinking, smoking pot and snorting heroin. It was more a playing-around situation than a dependence on them. (In retrospect it was a dangerous thing to do because as much as I was a prime candidate for other kinds of delinquency, I was certainly a prime candidate for addiction.) I quit high school in my second senior year and was feeling quite defiant about it. Some months later I got a job at a hospital as an orderly and had a room there too. I stayed in close touch with my friends. I began to play guitar, mostly folk music. Even though I wasn't able to play well I enjoyed it and played with intensity. Shortly I received my draft notice and decided to enlist so I could become a medic. At 19 I embarked on a road that would take me through basic training, medic training, advanced medical training, Vietnam, Germany, and finally home.
In the Army
Advanced medical training at Valley Forge Army Hospital was like being in college. I started off with good grades, but they declined as my social life became more active. One of the other students played guitar and sang and we played together. We had a natural harmony and it impressed the girls who didn't know too much about music. I barely graduated. I had volunteered for duty in Vietnam. I was assured that I would have hospital duty and not field duty. That year and a half of medical training cost the Army a bundle of money and they weren't going to waste it by putting me on the front line, right? Wrong! When I arrived in Vietnam in December 1968, I was assigned to the 101st Airmobile Division that operated about 30 miles south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), in the mountains from the coast to Laos. I spent six months on firebases that were constructed on mountaintops, and six months in the field humping up and down mountains with 90 pounds of food, weapons and medical supplies on my back. As a company medic I was the senior medical person in the field and had that responsibility for 100 men and four platoon medics. It was one of those situations where I was forced to rise to the occasion, and I did. On a number of occasions I risked my life and was highly decorated. A good medic in Vietnam was treated with great respect. Medics were often the only apparent symbols of humanity. I gained a profound moral commitment to save life, even the lives of the "enemy." I left Vietnam like a hollow shell of my former self. I was in a state of shock, for what I had seen on the battlefield was unbearably vulgar and inhuman. I was functioning but that's all. I came back from the war in December 1969. During the remaining nine months in the Army the pain from the war gradually deepened. I started doing drugs again, this time shooting opium, taking L.S.D., whatever was in front of me. I was at the lowest point in my life and could not even speak a full sentence without stuttering, something I'd never done before. I did not date socially for I could not tolerate a superficial relationship anymore. About six months before my discharge I received notice from the Red Cross that my landlady had died. I flew home immediately and arrived in Waterbury just as the funeral was beginning. I could not sit in the front with the family and friends. I stood in back completely overcome by grief, sobbing. I had lost a dear friend and the only home I ever had. I don't know what got me through this period more or less intact. I came back to Waterbury after my discharge and started college. That lasted for about three weeks. It was all so superficial and I did not fit in at all. Having no home I was living in the woods, a place where I felt most at home after having become accustomed to that kind of living in Vietnam. That was a short-lived arrangement as it was autumn and the nights brought freezing temperatures. Three friends and I decided to drive to California where the weather was a little more conducive to outdoor living. I was still pretty shaken by the events of the last two years, but I wasn't doing hard drugs anymore and was beginning to lighten up emotionally.
I Meet Jackie
We arrived in Fresno, California, in early autumn and stayed at the house of Schummer's friend Jackie, who would soon become the lady in my life. At that time Jackie, who'd had a rather severe life up to that point, was at a low point in her life. She'd gotten to the same point I had as far as human relationships go. Neither one of us could tolerate superficiality or nonsense and it would either be a honest and deep relationship or none at all. Our first years of marriage were filled with passion and nurturing. It seemed as — though we were using this time to stop reeling from the blows that our earlier lives had dealt. Gradually we worked our way out of the dingy past and into a present and future that would give us what neither of us ever had, a warm and loving family. One that would allow us to give our children what we grew up without — unconditional love, respect, parents who care for each other and who provide children with patient guidance and correction without demeaning them. We found that the children wanted to please us and wanted to be rewarded when they behaved well. During these times when we didn't know every answer we'd hug them and love them and just tell them that we didn't always know what to do. But what we had learned we made clear to them. Our daughter Shannon is 12 now, and our son Shanti is 7, and it appears as though we were basically right because they are two very caring, understanding and loving children. I'm 35 years old now. I've been working in a vocational training facility for adult disabled persons for eight years and am currently the production manager. I also work as a performing musician playing at benefit concerts. The second half of my life is going well. The love and joy I receive from my family, and a little help from good friends, are giving me a life I wouldn't trade for any other. I rarely forget to feel blessed and quietly thankful. I suppose that going through the first half of my life without the treasured gifts I have now has given me a special appreciation for what is often taken for granted by others. Life had given me what I had dreamed about for so long.