My mother’s older brother, Clifford Haughawout, was a prominent figure in the early life of my family. Tall and craggy with a lop-sided grin and slicked back hair, he looked like a man who’d stepped out of an outlaw saga. In some ways he was. Uncle Cliff was a gambler, a drinker and a conman. He listened to Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. Always had a cigarette in play. Didn’t so much walk as swagger. And he loved to spin a yarn, one eyebrow cocked and a sly half-smile sliding up the right side of his mouth.
My mother adored Clifford. He’d been her best friend and protector when they were teenagers growing up in 1950s Los Angeles. When she was 17 and he was 19, they went in on a brand new Chevy Bel Air convertible—cherry red and white—and cruised around town together with a car club. Both were working. They had money to burn. Life was grand and the future full of golden promise.
Then, Cliff joined the military. Everybody drank in the service. And he kept up with the best of them. He did his duty, made some buddies, and was out two years later a raging alcoholic.
For a time Cliff functioned. Held down a job. Met a girl. Got married and had three children. A good Catholic man with a strong sense of responsibility, he wanted to do right by his family. Love and be loved. Drape himself in a cloak of goodness and decency and make his mama proud. But Cliff was no longer driving his own life. Alcohol had him by the reins. He fought the demon, prayed and cursed. He binged and purged and binged and purged. Out of the smoke and ash of this raging battle, the outlaw emerged. Cliff surrendered to his vices and became a petty crook with a string of aliases. His marriage disintegrated. His wife went crazy and was institutionalized. And all of his children went into foster homes. He wouldn’t see them again until they were grown.
When I was a kid being raised by Mom and Grandma Winnie, Uncle Cliff drifted in and out of our lives. Sometimes he was sober and brimming with stories of his adventures on the road. Other times he was raging drunk, in jail or lost among the bums on Skid Row in downtown L.A. Grandma was often bailing him out of one fix or another. I dimly recall going with her to a run-down street in the heart of the city. Winos lined the sidewalks that reeked of piss, shit and garbage. I held tightly to Grandma’s hand as we stepped into the dark hallway of a neglected brick building with boarded up windows. I don’t remember how she knew where to go to find Uncle Cliff. All I recall is her determination. She was the Angel of Salvation and he was the Fallen. We made our way to a wretched apartment with a couple of dirty mattresses on the floor. Uncle Cliff was there in worse shape than I’d ever seen him. His face was a sallow pit of despair. Inside the crumpled, dirty clothes was a man who was dying of drink. Grandma Winnie tried to get him to come with us. He refused. “Get out. Leave me alone.” He did not want to look at our faces. Could not bear the tormented eyes of his mother. So she left him some money and we drove away.
It made me sad to see Uncle Cliff so crushed by life. In my child’s mind, he was a heroic figure who’d made his own rules and rose above the tedium or ordinary life. I’d heard countless stories of him traveling all over the country with his friend John Hood. They lived by their wits. They cheated at cards and pulled small-time cons. They’d go into a store to confuse the clerks with practiced slight of hand that yielded them a profit. One time, John Hood met a woman in Texas and married her. He took her money and her car, picked up Uncle Cliff, and drove to San Francisco where the soil was fertile to start their exploits anew. When I saw the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, I thought of Uncle Cliff and his partner John Hood–a couple of rebels carving their own path through a world filled with obstacles for those not born to privilege. Or so it seemed to me then.
Cliff never did hard time, except in his battle with alcohol. But he kept trying to be a better man. To go straight and get clean. To redeem his sins in the eyes of God and his family. When I was 10, he moved with Mom, Grandma, and the four of us kids to Utah. Why a broken down Catholic family thought life would be better there is hard to fathom. It wasn’t. And six months later we were fleeing back to Southern California and a life that was, if not easy, at least familiar. We made our exodus in winter during a snowstorm. Crossing over a mountain, our beat up old station wagon, Betsy, broke down. No surprise. She was crammed to the gills with three adults, four kids, two dogs and the stuff of our lives. As we sat freezing on that mountain pass, snow piling up around us, Uncle Cliff cinched his inadequate trench coat around his body and positioned himself next to the highway with his thumb out. The few cars that passed sped up as their lights reflected off his shadowy figure. He stood for a half hour, refusing to give up as his hands and face froze. Not until my brother, Bobby, ran to his side did a car finally stop. Standing there with my brother, Cliff was no longer an outlaw—but a father looking out for his child. And in that moment, we were saved.