Memoir Chapter 1 – Sweet Home
“This is a story about us, the ones trying to find a reason to live, in a world where this is even harder than merely surviving.”“Sweet Home” Sisyphus on Netflix, Season 1 Episode 1
“We are the Cagle Family, one big happy family. Mom, Dad and 10 brothers and sisters.” My mom held a tambourine in her hand and twirled around, her voice rang out to the crowd circled around. The guitar case, open in front, filled with coins and paper bills. Today we happened to be on the fussganger strasse in Frankfurt but it didn’t matter where we were, the streets of Europe, the subways of New York City, poolside at the hotels of Miami…it was the same thing. One big happy family…
My parents joined the hippy christian group The Children of God when they were in their teens and when they got married they were given the verse by God “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.” – Mark 16:15. And that’s what they did. And as us kids were born, we were added to their singing group. We were a singing family. We traveled around the world singing.
My dad was a genius and a carpenter. Always tinkering and building some newfangled experiment. When we lived in Miami he sold one of his creations to a “sell your experiments” patent office and made us a chunk of cash, enough to pay rent on a small house. He invented a wooden drum platform. One that was lightweight and collapsible and portable. When we weren’t living in Children of God communes (more on that later), or regular houses or apartments, we lived in hotels, motels or youth hostels. But most frequently we lived in buses or vans that my dad turned into campers. He would buy one for cheap that was sitting on a car lot or junk yard and we’d move in straightaway. He’d take out the seats and build it out and turn it into a camper right in the car lot, which was our home for the few weeks it took for him to work on it.
He would put carpet on the floors and build banquet seating and bunk beds. Early in the mornings, if I slept on the top bunk, I would awaken to my nose and face inches away from the condensation on the metal ceiling. We would come home from our day of singing, pass by a main office of the junk yard, and the soil stained mechanics would stare at us. I never understood how they were ok with it. We did this both in Europe and in america.
My father had a penchant for buying vans and buses, taking all the seats out, and building them inside like mobile homes, complete with beds, bathroom (never a working bathroom, more like a cubicle), and kitchen. Sometimes we would live in it as he was building it, most of the time actually. A few times we had city buses. In New York City we would pull our city bus/mobile home up to our singing spot, (one favorite spot was in front of Cats The Musical, when it was still open), we would unload the bus with our equipment, turn on the generator and do our show. At the end of the day of performing, or after getting chased off by the cops, we would just drive around and around until we found the ideal parking spot, pull over and that was our home. I remember some nights being in my bed while dad would drive around looking for a spot. The rumble of the engine, the turns and stops and starts would put me in this state of peace. I felt such disappointment when dad would find a spot and turn the engine off.
Sometimes I would just sit and look out the window at people rushing by. I would just watch people for ages. I especially liked to watch the morning commuters going to work. I thought they looked so busy and important. I can remember some people mistakenly trying to get in our bus because they thought it was the city bus. It happened all the time.
One particular van we lived in was wheel-less and sitting on cement blocks in a lot in Aruba, The Netherlands Antilles. I was born there, and that van was my home while we lived in Aruba.
Dad had an inquisitive and ambitious mind and a big heart all packed into a stocky yet compact 4 foot 11 height. Mom towered over him at 5’5. His smile was large and sincere, his eyes watery and twinkled with love for humanity. He was always giving money to the drug addicts and homeless people who surrounded us in our daily life as buskers. He would never turn down someone who asked for money, sometimes to our detriment. He had all of the ingredients of being the best dad anyone could ever want. He was loyal, he was devoted to his family, he adored our mother. He worshipped her and never hurt her.
Being super short, and a black man in America, growing up in South Carolina, in the racist south, meant he had his set of battles to overcome and he always told us the story of him sitting on the rooftop of his mom’s house playing his saxophone and being at the end of his rope. Praying, crying, to God to show him the truth soon otherwise he would end it all.
In the 1970’s dad was in his first semester of college studying Biochemistry when his prayers were answered. He was stepping out of a school building when a large school bus pulled up to the campus. Out of the school bus poured hippies with long hair, long dresses and big smiles on their face and alien or otherworldly looking eyes as he described it. They were missionaries for “The Children of God.” Their heads swiveled towards him and they said,
“God Bless you brother. Jesus really loves you and so do we.”
They pulled him onto the school bus and witnessed to him, they hugged him and showed him so much love and told him to “Drop Out” of the system. This was the sign, the miracle that he was waiting for. He dropped out of college, grabbed what little he could shove into a backpack, joined them and never looked back.
Dad was someone I tried to respect and someone I wanted to love with my whole heart. There were two reasons that made this impossible as much as I tried.
The founder of The Children of God or The Family as it was called when I was growing up was named David Brandt Berg, his nicknames were Moses David or Mo, and others. First Generation members, or people like my dad who joined the family called him Dad. Second generation, or us kids born into The Family called him Grandpa. And my dad was devoted to Grandpa. When Grandpa wrote a Mo Letter which talked about him needing to strap his daughter Mene to a bed to beat and lecture rebellion out of her, my dad was all about it and used to threaten me with the same. When Grandpa talked about using corporal punishment to get your kids in gear, dad was all about it. When Grandpa talked about being nomads and not having a home or a job Dad followed. Once all of the first gens started having children being a nomad started being a problem. They needed to have some income so the kids could eat. So The Family members were told to start Postering, in mall parking lots, on the street, or going door to door selling posters to make money. Then Grandpa wrote a Mo letter called “Busking” which talked about singing on the street with your kids for tips to make money and to witness, my dad was all about it, and that was our life.
From the day I was born, I was added to the singing group. Mom and Dad and older brother Sammy, and for each brother and sister that was born after me it was the same for them as well. Before I could speak properly I had my song, and before I could walk properly I had my choreography.
“He’s got the whole world in his hand.”
“Love makes a better world where we can be happy. Love makes a better world where we can be free.”
“The time to be happy is now, and the place to be happy is here, and the way to be happy is to make someone happy and we’ll have a little heaven right here”.
“Free, free, free, free I’m so free, living right under this coconut tree.”
We travelled around the world busking and singing for Jesus. The streets of Europe, the subways of Manhattan, sometimes inside the actual subway car, poolside at hotels for vacationers in Miami, birthdays, parties, or wherever we could.
There was this one song we used to sing as we busked. It’s got a Caribbean vibe and we would harmonize and step back and forth as we sang.
There was the forward facing version that everybody heard, but threaded through the song was a secret version that only us kids knew of. Sometimes, particularly on bad days or when we weren’t making enough money, or if one of us wasn’t singing good enough or loud enough, or if we were looking at our fingers or down at the ground and not at the people, Dad would vocally riff, Harry Belefonte style with a big smile on his face in-between the lines of the song while he played keyboard or guitar behind us kids as we did our choreography and sang in front. People just thought he was riffing and really feeling the music.
Everybody can be Happy.
Look at the people.
Everybody can be happy.
Sing a little louder.
Everybody can be happy.
Happy to be living.
With a little love.
You’re on TV
Even though they may laugh at me.
Still I know I’m happy.
With a little loooove.
I’ll see you later.
He was sending us messages.
You’re on TV was code for “people are looking at you so be on your best behavior”. But “I’ll see you later”. That was the worst one by far. Terror would course through us. We knew what I’ll see you later meant. It meant that we had gone too far. He gave us enough warnings and we hadn’t heeded them, and now we would have to be punished. It meant that when we would get home to the van, or wherever we lived we would be lined up and one by one we’d go up to our dad who had a paddle that he fashioned out of wood, or a metal hanger that was twisted and flattened into the shape of a rod.
There were various ways we would receive our punishment. We would go up tohim one by one and wait there and he would tell us what it would be. There was one where he would tell us to extend our upwards facing open palm. Then he would hit it with the metal hanger or wooden paddle according to the amount of hits we had accumulated during the course of the day based on how naughty we were. 5, or 10 etc.There was another one where he would pull our pants down, or pull our dress up, and he would bend us over his left knee. If we thrashed around too much, he would wrap his right leg over the backs of our legs, essentially pinning us into place. He would, timed to the rhythm of the metal hanger coming down, through gritted teeth, tell us exactly why he was doing it. “I…told…you…to…stop…playing…around.”
We had to remain absolutely quiet as we were receiving this punishment. Or cry as softly as we could. If we screamed particularly loudly he would wrap the thick meaty fingers of his left hand over our mouth, which also would cut off air to our tiny nose passages which would shoot the terror of the whole proceeding up a notch. In addition to the physical pain there was also the terror of not being able to breathe. Your heart would jump into your throat and the beating receded into the background. It was negligible compared to the feeling of not being able to breathe. Most of the time, the worst punishment would come because we didn’t listen to him and shut up while we were being beaten. He would increase the cadence of the timed blows.
“I. told. you. to. be. quiet”.
Afterwards he was out of breath and sweating. Snot poured into our mouths no matter how tightly we pressed our lips together to stifle the sobs that wracked our bodies. The screams of anguish shoved so far down into our bellies never to rise again.
Then he would tell us that he really loved us, and that he was doing it for our good.
When we got a little older, like around 5 years to 10 years old, the punishments became a little more severe. He would use electric cords and others, and then when we got even older he drew blood or broke bones. That’s not counting his rage attacks where he would straddle us and choke us, or things of that nature.
The worst part was watching your brothers and sisters getting it and not being able to help them. And guess where he got that whole strategy from…you guessed it. Grandpa. The cults founder. I can still see the Mo letter (the founder’s teachings) which depicted a drawing of a little boy receiving the same treatment, and then afterwards the little boy being hugged, tears coursing down the adults face, giving the same spiel that dad would give to us. “This hurts me more than it hurts you.”
This is the first reason. Dad’s devotion to a monster.
The second reason was the physical, mental abuse and neglect.
I can’t tell you the amount of people through the years, when I tell them I’m non-com with my parents, they tell me “He’s still your father.” Did you not just listen to what I said?
The amount of bullying and racism my dad experienced growing up must have been horrifying. He felt so alone and abandoned by society. My heart ached for him. He used to cry as he spoke about it to us in devotions. That, I feel was what captured our hearts and stopped us from leaving a lot of the time. Here was this innocent guy who just wanted to be loved. When I say it’s impossible for me to love him with my whole heart don’t get me wrong. My love for him has evolved from a place of fear, revulsion and pity. To a place of unconditional love. But even though I accept him, and love him there’s also wisdom there, there’s also wariness, there’s caution. I accept you. From afar.
So in those moments when I yearn for a memory of what it feels like to be hugged by a father? To be kissed on the cheek. To be tucked into bed. To be told “I love you”, I remember that I had all of those things. As my parents have pointed out time and time again,
“We loved you and did the best for you”.
But when I have those feelings of missing my parents and I reach for the phone. I stop myself.
In order to understand my dad you need to understand something about dual-nature of things. He was kind and calm and caring, and then other times he’d switch and he was manic. When the ritualized beatings stopped when we were older, a new form of brutal punishment started that was more spontaneous. And when we were older is when the psychological torture began. My memories of my dad are of two different people. The nice guy with the big smile, and the enraged manic beast. But more on that later.