Note: Three years ago my youngest daughter Maureen Murfin was inspired to collect and preserve some family history for posterity. She collected questions from her two older sisters and her three nephews and one niece for my wife Kathy Brady-Murfin and me and whipped up a tailor made questionnaire for each of us. This is mine with my responses. Challenging, thought provoking stuff. Now with the Coronavirus pandemic we have gone without our regular gatherings of the clan for months and will not be together again in person for the holiday season. It’s a good time to revisit this and reconnect. And it may be mildly interesting to the casual reader and morbidly curious.
What was it like moving from the West to the Midwest? Did anything surprise you?
I didn’t know quite what to expect. On one hand I liked Cheyenne. It was all I knew. On the other I knew my Dad had resisted moving us to the big, bad city for years but finally could not take the long absences from home—almost half of the year—which stoked my Mom’s resentments and rages. I thought I might be moving into a world of towering apartment buildings and gangsters. I was quite surprised to find that Skokie, an older suburb, felt more like a small town with its own nice little downtown and that we lived in small brick ranch style home not that different than the one in Cheyenne, but on a much smaller lot. Niles West was four or five times bigger than Cheyenne East high, so that in itself was an adjustment. So was finding myself in a school that was maybe 75% Jewish and where most of the Gentile kids were considered “Greasers”—a term we used for Mexicans in Cheyenne but discovered meant the kids we called Hoods out west. The Jewish kids were mostly the Collegiate—nice clothes, polite, and with assumed bright futures. Back in Cheyenne as a clumsy, not-athletic, pudgy, bookish kid, I was an outcast and near pariah with virtually no friends. But that bookishness and even my nerdy social awkwardness seemed to be a more comfortable fit in the new school. There were plenty of others with similar interests. If I didn’t get welcomed into the highest social cliques, I found plenty of friends among the theater geeks, would-be writers, and political activists. They accepted the odd Goy in the cowboy hat, perhaps as an exotic. For the first time I felt I had a real life of my own. So on the whole, the move was probably a life saver for me.
Is there anything in your life that you would change, if you could?
Tough question. There are many forks in the road and infinite possibilities for choosing different ones. On the whole, I wouldn’t change a whole lot. Good, bad, even disastrous decisions created who I am, the only me I know. Maybe I should have had more confidence, taken some more risks, especially in pursuing my writing. I passed opportunities to work on Chicago daily papers after the Seed simply because I was ashamed of my horrible spelling and afraid that I would be eaten alive by an old time hard boiled copy editor. Similarly, I sent few of my short stories out, even those that got high praise at Columbia College, for fear of rejection. Perhaps I could have built a career and not just a succession of jobs. But perhaps not….W. M. Murfin and Ruby Irene Murfin with the twins circa 1952. I'm the one on the left, Timothy--Peter in later life--on the right.
What 3 adjectives would you use to describe your mother? What 3 for your father?
Mom—damaged, lonely, resentful. Dad—integrity, stoic, aloof.
Your brother [Timothy later called Peter] died while he was still fairly young, what do you think he would be like or be up to if was alive today?
We were not all that young. He was 55 when he died. He was trying to get his life together but he had not only burned most of his bridges, he had blown them to bits. Although he may have stopped drinking and pill popping, he still had wide swings between religious ecstasy, black depression, and self-loathing. I think he was by then incapable of either happiness or building lasting and meaningful relationships. He probably would have relapsed, dried out, and repeated the cycle until a similar end.
Your father was a military man – if it weren’t for the Vietnam War, would you have ever joined the military?
Although he enlisted in the Army for World War II, I don’t think he considered himself a military man. It was something he needed to do given the times. And it may have been an escape following the death in infancy of his only natural child months before. But I grew up surrounded by not only him but all of my uncles and almost every adult male I knew were veterans. Every home I visited had framed pictures of young men in uniform. That and a steady diet of old John Wayne war flicks on the after-school TV movie made me want to join the service. As a young child had played a recurring back yard game where I was the hero of the United States Playground Marines or of the Rough Riders. In high school I joined the Civil Air Patrol pretty much just for the uniform and to get my picture taken in it. I seriously considered an Air Force career and seeking a Congressional appointment to the Air Force Academy. The Vietnam War changed all of that.In Old Town circa 1970. Grappling with the Draft, anti-war activist, baby Wobbly, writing student at Columbia College. I wanted to write the Great American Novel.
What was your father’s reaction to you refusing the draft?
My father was surprisingly supportive once he understood that it was a matter of conscience despite being personally a conservative Republican. But being true to your convictions was important to him. He really believed the old Davy Crocket motto that I grew up with as a kid: “Be sure your right, then go ahead.” Mom was actually, although quietly, a liberal Democrat. But her fear that I would bring shame upon the family completely trumped her politics. She was also emotionally unstable and in fragile health. Dad and I had to conspire together to keep Mom from finding out that I was convicted of Draft Refusal and in prison.
Do you believe in soulmates?
As a romantic kid I certainly did. But now I don’t believe that there is just one person out of millions that you are destined for or compatible with. Any of us are limited by those who life throws in our path. A soul mate in India would be as useless as ice skates in Hell. Many relationships are possible. The best and most enduring ones take mutual work and effort over a long time, not magic fairy dust.
What is something you think the family would be surprised to hear about you/your life?
I have been fairly free about telling my stories. Not everyone has listened, and few have read the several memoir pieces I have written, some of them embarrassingly honest about my manifest failures and deficiencies. I don’t think anyone would be terribly surprised if they have paid any attention.A house full of women indeed. Christmas circa 1988 with Carolynn Larsen, Kathy Brady Murfin, Maureen, and Heather Larsen.
What was it like living in a house full of women for so long?
It’s been so long, I can’t remember any other way. Mostly it is humbling.
What do you miss about your childhood?
The physical bigness and beauty of Wyoming. And the total freedom we seemed to have there and then. I could leave the house after breakfast and as long as I came home when the dinner bell on the porch rang about 5:30 I could roam all over Cheyenne at will from the time I was in the second or third grade. No one even took notice whether I left the house with my back pockets stuffed with paperback books to read while lolling on a willow tree branch overlooking a pond in Holiday Park or if I toted by .22 rifle and had a couple boxes of shells to go plink cans and bottle at a ranch junk yard. I did both with pleasure.
What’s the best concert you’ve ever been to?
Hard to say but here are some candidates—Barbara Streisand at Soldier Field when I was in high school, The Mothers of Invention and Canned Heat at the Electric Playground while on acid, Bob Dylan at the International Amphitheatre in the late ‘70’s, the first time I heard Utah Philips at the old Quiet Knight on Wells Street, Steve Goodman playing for us cons at Sandstone Prison.
Was there ever a career you wanted to pursue as a kid/teenager that you didn’t?
Influenced by my hero Theodore Roosevelt—fat bookish kid with glasses makes good—as a pre-teen and later as a young adolescent in the Kennedy years I told people I would be President of the United States. They told me fat chance. In high school and college I wanted to write the Great American Novel.
What passions did you have as a kid/teenager?
From a very young age, reading—an escape to anywhere. As an older teen writing, theater, and eventually activism.Kids and grand kids, significant others (at the time) at Christmas 2018. Front row, Paul Carlson, Kevin Rotter, Maureen Rotter, Randy Larsen. Back, Kenny Pearson, Heather Larsen, Caiti Pearson, Joe Gibson, Nick Bailey, Carolynne Larsen Fox, Mark Fox. W e have since added Joey's mate Cara Dilworth and great granddaughter Sienna, dropped Kevin for John Holmes and welcomed granddaughter Matilda. It's complicated....
If you could give advice to your grandkids for their future, what would it be?
Fall down. Get up. Repeat. And dare a little.
What do you think the grandkids will be like as older adults?
Over the years how have you seen each of the kids and grandkids change?
Almost all of you have had demons and almost all of you have come to grips with them even if they are never wholly tamed. You are fine human beings who make me proud and humble.
What do you want your legacy to be?
That I stood up, spoke out, and tried not to be too much of a dick. How well I succeed will depend on how well any scar tissue I have inflicted on all of you, however unintentionally, heals.
What would you say to your past self now if you could?
Look out for the damned walnuts on the sidewalk. They will wreck your ankles….
Seeing the way your girls turned out, is there anything you would go back in time and change?
I would pay better attention. Sometimes I could be clueless to what was really going on.
What do you think about today’s clothing selections for teens/young adults?
Every generation wants to shock the bourgeoisie—meaning the old folks. Not much has changed except the nature of the red flags waved. I try not to get too excited about it.
Another timeless truth is every generation thinks the music of their youth is the greatest ever. No decrepit geezer like me should mouth off about what young folks listen to, even if he wants to change the station for himself. I have seen when the inevitable crap and mediocrity gets shaken out over time in every genre and every generation has produced some great music.