The Dakemans were untidy degenerates, including their children and pets, according to Mom. “Some people make their pets and children as trashy as they are,” she said, her voice hushed discreetly. “It’s a well-known fact of life.” She used me—in my crisp blue Air Force uniform complete with Expert Marksman medal and Good Conduct ribbon—and our dog Pershing, as counter-examples. Pershing was a joyless yellow Labrador. We kept him tied to the mulberry tree in our front yard. He never barked or strained at his rope when cars, or people on foot, passed by. He was too intelligent, too dignified, to be ruled by the ordinary chaotic dog emotions. Several of the undisciplined Dakeman dogs would often come over to visit Pershing, and Pershing would allow himself to be sniffed, nipped, teased, and sometimes mounted, without protest, until Mom rapped the window hard enough to make the uninhibited Dakeman mongrels realize her anger, and the motley gang of dogs would chase each other back to the house across the street which looked like it had been plucked up out of some 1930s dust-bowl state by a tornado and deposited twenty years later in our clean and tidy, middle-class, scrupulously manicured, east San Diego neighborhood.

I had just gotten back home after twelve weeks of basic training at Parks Air Force base outside of Oakland. I caught the flu in the damp northern California climate and had lost twenty pounds. I went into the Air Force skinny—six feet tall and one hundred and sixty pounds— and now, at one hundred and forty pounds, I looked like I’d just been liberated from a Nazi concentration camp. Still dizzy and weak, I spent my evenings watching TV and listening to Mom whisper complaints, as if she wasn’t in her own house and needed to be secretive. She complained about the Dakemans, about the rising price of meat, and, with tight-lipped bitterness, about Dad’s boss who kept him on the road six to eight months a year. I didn’t mind listening to her. It was better than listening to a drill instructor scream a long list of your shortcomings into your face. And besides, the tedium I had to put up with was more than compensated for by her abundant, nonstop cooking.