Excerpt: ‘Grace Is Enough’

/ Source: TODAY

Former child star Willie Aames ("Eight Is Enough" and "Charles in Charge") and his wife, Maylo, write about growing up abused, abusing themselves and how finding each other enabled them to climb out from under the tremendous pressures keeping each of them down. Read an excerpt from "Grace Is Enough."

Prologue
Gold shag carpet ... Turquoise or avocado-green kitchen appliances. Black-and-white TVs. Transistor radios.

Matt Dillon, Chester, Festus, and Miss Kitty. Mayberry, Opie, Aunt Bea, Andy, and, of course, Barney Fife.

“We’re goin’ to Surf City. Yeah, here we come.” “I wanna hold your han-yan-yand.”

Girls with white lipstick. Boys with shocks of long, sun-bleached hair swept across their foreheads. Beach Blanket Bingo, Gidget, Annette, Frankie Avalon.

Frank Sinatra in The Manchurian Candidate. Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur. Norman Bates. Alfred Hitchcock.

These were part of California culture when we were born: I, Willie, on July 15, 1960, and my wife, Maylo, on January 6, 1962.

Do you recognize any of them? They marked the beginning of the ’60s in California. No other place on earth was like Hollywood, a land where dreams could be fulfilled — or, more commonly, smashed. Everyone knew that there was no other Disneyland, no other Knott’s Berry Farm, no other Sunset Boulevard. Most people had never heard of places like Saigon and Da Nang yet.

Where else could you experience both the dusty Santa Ana winds and an earthquake, maybe even on the same day? Or have to stay inside because the city had issued one of the country’s first smog alerts? Welcome to our childhood home, where true locals could describe their state as “where the sewage meets the ocean under the smog.” Both the good and bad were essential ingredients for the Golden State.

Ever since the days of Mary Pickford and Errol Flynn, there has been a mystique about making it big in Hollywood. Both of us were eventually caught up in this dream, but for different reasons: my career was born out of a desire to simply be acknowledged by my family, and Maylo’s was born as a desire to escape from hers.

I did my first commercial at the age of nine, and by nineteen, I was making a million dollars a year — and doing a killer job of going through most of it. I went from being a teen-idol pinup to cleaning toilets on dive boats for less than minimum wage, while guests on board pointed at the “movie star” and laughed.

But these are not “poor me” stories. It’s only after twenty years of being Christians, continually asking and allowing God to enter our lives and remold us, that we can look back and recognize his protective and merciful hand lifting us up in extreme circumstances, whether inflicted by others or ourselves.

***

While Willie was cashing his checks, I, Maylo, was also living a dream ... but it was more like a nightmare. At the age of sixteen, I was a Hollywood statistic — a runaway, like so many other girls wandering the boulevards in search of drugs and excitement, looking for escape and hope among the addicted, the lost, the wicked.

On the surface, our stories are as different as the Beverly Hills’ palm-tree-lined boulevards were from the stained back alleys where I bought my drugs and witnessed murder and more. But there was an unexpected twist in the plots — God merged our stories together, and they became one.

Years later, we know two things: our stories really belong to and are written by him, and the pain we each went through — and still go through — has prepared us to show others the love and mercy Christ gives us daily.

***

A one-act play by Thornton Wilder shows Jesus’ healing of the man at the pool of Bethesda in John 5:1–4 in modern terms. It’s called The Angel That Troubled the Waters and describes our hope for the telling of our stories. In the play, a doctor comes periodically to the pool of Bethesda, where from time to time an angel appears and stirs the water, giving it power to heal the first person in the pool. The doctor, hoping to be rid of his melancholy, attempts to step into the water, but the angel blocks him.

“Draw back, physician,” the angel warns. “This moment is not for you.”

The astonished doctor pleads, “Angelic visitor, I pray thee, listen to my prayer.”

Again the angel tells him that healing at the pool is not for him. Then the angel says something surprising: “Without your wounds, where would your power be? It is your very remorse that makes your low voice tremble into the hearts of men and women. The very angels themselves cannot persuade the wretched and blundering children on earth as can one human being broken on the wheels of living. In Love’s service, only the wounded soldiers can serve.”

We’d like to say that our story has a “perfect Christian” happy ending. Forget it. Christ gave us both a new beginning, but we had to be broken first. As long as we follow Christ, there are chapters of our story still to be written. In the meantime, we have been broken and we are wounded, but we continue to serve, in part through the telling of our stories.

As you read our stories, you may recognize yourself. You may disbelieve all or part of it. You may know the individuals and events we recount and disagree about how things went down. While the events we lived are all as we remember them, we have intentionally changed some names and small details to spare some who could be affected by the public scrutiny that might arise. If you think you know the stories and people involved, let us assure you, you don’t.

But why do we share these stories? Because we have endured and have learned what faith is built upon. It is our prayer as a family that reading about the victories as well as the wounds we have received will give you the power to see God’s love in a new light and to realize that there is hope. Your story can have new beginnings, over and over, until you meet Christ in his glory. Willie

Daddy’s Little Man ... At 5:45 a.m., it was still a little dark outside, but the urgency to get to the beach early kept my legs pumping up and down on the half-barren bicycle pedal. The other pedal was just a thin, rusted peg of metal squeaking in protest. No rubber to keep my foot from slipping into the gear chain, tearing off another chunk of flesh from my ankle. Ow! You stupid ———!

My bike swayed wildly out of control right into the teeth of Brookhurst Boulevard, the asphalt dividing line between Huntington Beach, Costa Mesa, and Newport Beach that ended at the Pacific. But with an unintentionally acrobatic recovery, I cheated the surf god one more time. And he got another blood sacrifice to appease his royalness for a while.

It was October of 1977, and summer vacation was fast becoming a memory. Eight Is Enough had started filming for the year, but I wasn’t on the call sheet to work that day. So, instead of attending private tutoring on the set, I was excused from the usual two-and-a-half-hour, traffic-jammed drive to Warner Brothers Studios and was allowed to attend my regular classes at Edison High School — which I decided to excuse myself from for the day.

Once on the beach, I stood on top of my surfboard to protect my bare feet from the cold sand, mesmerized by the classic California morning. In front of me was a glassy-smooth, windless ocean, broken up by set after set of four- to six-feet-high perfect waves rolling in. The long flawless shoulders, the nice wide tubes, with just a hint of spit (spray that comes from inside the tube) as they broke, peeling cleanly. Lineup after lineup. And I was the only guy on the beach.

Somehow, miraculously, the rest of the world hadn’t bothered to watch the news for signs of a swell or, unlike me, they just didn’t have the good sense to ditch school that day. It was plain they didn’t know the waves were going to be there. After waxing up my board with my favorite brand, Mr. Zogs Sex Wax, I began wading out.

The air temperature was several degrees lower than the water temperature, so it felt like stepping into a lukewarm bath. As I bent down to grab a handful of wet sand to rough up the fresh wax, making it stickier, I noticed that the sun, now just above Saddleback Mountain, was mirrored on the glassy ocean. The dawn sky blew muted colors of red, pink, and orange on the horizon, which I took as a celebration in honor of my escape from academic delirium for the day.

Moments like these reminded me why California was the coolest state in the nation. I knew that the colorful atmospheric display was really just sunlight filtering through tons of dirt, soot, and smog we would no doubt be choking on later that day. Nevertheless, that’s California — always a little on the flamboyant side so that the truth becomes dependent on how you define it.

As I looked out to sea, I could see two islands on the horizon. To my south was San Clemente — roughly thirty-six miles from the harbor entrance, used mostly by the Navy and off-limits to most civilians — and to the northwest was Catalina — about twenty-six miles away and full of childhood memories ...

It was 1963 or ’64.

“Willie, you are gonna get it! Wait until Dad gets back ...”

I was determined not to cry as I looked at my swim trunks with their big wet spot in the middle. I was three, maybe four years old, and the incident is one of my earliest memories. My sister, Kim, eleven months older than I, was with me on the deck of a small powerboat that belonged to a friend of Jim Upton, my father.

Dad was a long-time diver. He wanted to dive that day, and Dad usually did what Dad wanted to do. Mom had to work, so he dragged his two small kids along while he spent the day spearfishing in the rich waters around Catalina Island.

“Sit and don’t touch anything! Don’t screw around!” Those were his last instructions before throwing himself over the rail and into the water. What the heck? What was that supposed to mean? We were three and four years old. Screwing around was our job! You wait until the worst possible moment when everybody over the age of thirty is stressed stupid, and then you screw around. Makes total sense.

So there we were, stuck by ourselves. And I had to pee!

Being an Upton, I knew this could turn cataclysmic, even if I didn’t know the word cataclysmic yet. The dictionary’s definitions are “a sudden and violent upheaval” or “a terrible and devastating flood.” I mean I really had to pee. And there was no head (restroom) on board for me to use. I held it as long as I could, asking Kim every few minutes with more desperation each time, “Kim, do you think Dad will be back soon? I have to go to the bathroom!”

But he didn’t come and he didn’t come. I tried to climb up on the captain’s chair, thinking I could pee over the side of the boat, but I was too far from the edge. I had long ago exhausted my own personal version of the dreaded “pee pee Watusi dance.”

I gave up and went back to sit on the boat’s single bunk. The urine began to run down my legs in spite of my willing it not to happen, and I wet the aqua blue canvas seat. And then I waited for the inevitable, for Dad was not likely to listen to any excuses. His embarrassment in front of his buddy would nix any hope of sympathy; I knew that already.

Looking back at the incident today and being a father myself, my first thought is that we should not have been left alone. We were twenty-six miles from the Newport harbor entrance and from our mother, left to fend for ourselves. I don’t recall wearing life preservers, and the boat rocked with the swell of the ocean, making seasickness another of the day’s prizes. Had we tried to see over the boat’s sides, we could have easily fallen into the water. I guess if the worst thing that happened that day was my wetting myself, I should be thankful. I also believe that today, given the opportunity, Dad would do things differently.

The point is, I wanted to be big that day, and every day. I was the youngest of four children, and I wanted to show what a big man I was. The worst part of wetting myself was not that I would get a whipping; the worst part was that I felt I had let my father down.

I had a lot to live up to if I wanted to be like my father. James Tweedy Upton was totally masculine in the traditional sense. He was a “do it now, don’t ask questions” kind of guy. At about five-foot-nine, he was not tall. But the guy was tough. As a firefighter who also worked emergency rescue operations, he was used to acting quickly and decisively, and he expected obedience without question.

Dad could be very intimidating. Not religious in any way, he nonetheless had an innate sense of right and wrong, especially in relation to the treatment of unfairly disenfranchised people at the hands of bureaucracy or government. He had no problem getting in the face of those meting out the injustice. Even as a boy, I admired the way he personified courage. And I was determined to be like him, standing up for the little guy, the so-called common man. This attitude and belief have never left me, even today.

As intense as Dad was, though, don’t think for a minute that he didn’t have a sense of humor. James Tweedy Upton had reached the age when he and his fellows should personify dignity as men schooled in the finer kinds of classical entertainment. Things like short-sheeting his sons’ beds or stealing the distributor cap from his brother’s car so he couldn’t get to work on time. (It started a practical-joke war that went on for months! Hence, my deep respect for the man.)

My dad’s method of teaching me to swim, another of my early memories, was characteristic of both his no-nonsense style and the trademark macho Upton humor. Dad grabbed me by my little hand, and we headed for the water — just him and me, father and son, like a Hallmark commercial. And then the strangest thing happened. I remember an incredible feeling of weightlessness, followed by the sound of a large splash, the taste of salt water, and green foam sloshing over my head. Most of all, I remember an extreme desire to breathe! My grandfather Albert spent a little time with me later, helping me get better at it, but I learned to swim the very day I got thrown into the Pacific. There was no other choice if I wanted to keep up with my father.

The afternoon I wet the boat, I did get the whipping that I knew was coming. There was no other option as a son of James Tweedy Upton. But it was OK — the momentary punishment was a small price to pay for being a disappointment to my dad that day.

Wanting to Matter ... The first time I tried to hang myself I was three or four years old. We lived at 721 Center Street. It’s funny what we remember. I can’t remember whom I talked with on the phone this morning but something as simple as an address before the age of five? Can’t get rid of it. It was at our house in Costa Mesa.

I tried it twice, both times by rigging up a rope to our weather-beaten backyard fence. The grain in its dark pickets seemed sandblasted into a maze of deep channels in the wood. Somehow that fence represented an emptiness to me, ringing our backyard of half grass, a quarter dirt, and another quarter of weeds mixed with grass.

On both occasions, about the time my vision was becoming a blur and my face had begun turning a deep purple, my mother happened to step out into the backyard and find me doing the midair stare. Maybe she went out to take some wash off the line or to turn off the hose that I was supposed to be playing in. Whatever the reason, she discovered me hanging there against the dark brown cedar fence, my head in the noose, or at least a three-year-old’s facsimile of one.

“What in the world are you doing, Willie!” Each time she untied the knot and let me down. I don’t remember giving any specific answer, but I knew what the answer was: I was curious about what it was like to die and was trying to find out.

Mom didn’t seem to see anything more significant in my experimentation than just childish fooling around. At least not that I ever knew of. Nor did she comment or seem concerned about the fact that I also began to climb into the top shelf of the closet in the room I shared with my brother. I would cram myself up into the small space and sleep there, precariously perched five feet or more off the ground on a shelf that was at most twelve or fourteen inches wide.

Neither Mom nor Dad was a Leave It to Beaver parent who would sit down and reason with a child about the wisdom or foolishness of certain behaviors. A quick whipping or paddling could solve the problem faster and without testing their already stretched patience.

Or Dad would respond in other ways. One Christmas when I was four or five, I got a double-barreled popgun — the type with two corks at the muzzle — made out of tin and painted to look like it belonged to Davy Crockett. My older brothers teased me about my new toy. To defend my hurt feelings, I raised the gun over my head and threatened them with it. Whoops, that didn’t work. In a flash I felt my dad grabbing the gun from me. He quickly and expertly turned it into a pretzel. Then he spanked me.

“If you ever threaten someone with a gun again, you’ll really get it!” he yelled, leaving me to wonder, but hopefully not to find out, what the “it” for next time would be.

Similarly, if one of the four of us accidentally left a toy or bicycle in the driveway, it was history. Dad would just run it over, and I don’t mean unintentionally. Low gear, up and over. When that happened, I wanted to cry, but being the son of James Tweedy Upton, rescuer of those in distress and an all-around man’s man, I knew better than to do so. And I knew that it wouldn’t change anything if I did.

It wasn’t long after my self-lynchings that I began running away from home, but I can’t remember that there was any one event or situation that started my striking out on my own. From time to time after being punished, I’d grab a paper bag and stomp into the bedroom. Then I’d load the bag with an extra T-shirt and a few of my favorite things, including my prized rubber knife, and walk out the front door, informing whoever was in earshot that I was running away.

Off I’d go, dragging my bag of possessions. I’d walk a few blocks — a considerable distance for a child. The early evening would begin fading away, with the California sky changing from a deep indigo into a purplish black. I’d find a large oleander bush or piñon tree in a nearby yard, conceal myself within its branches, and curl up for the night.

Eventually Mom or Dad would send out Ron or Jim, and whichever of my brothers had the duty to find me would kneel down and convince me to come back with him. He’d help me pick up my belongings, and we’d walk home, where I’d go straight to bed. Neither Mom nor Dad seemed surprised or glad to see me. In fact, they gave me the cold shoulder. I suppose it was their version of “using psychology” to discourage my behavior.

Life in the Upton household the next day would go on as usual. There was no delving into the reasons behind my grandstanding for attention. There was no acknowledgment that I was maybe a little too fearless for a boy of three or four.

Was I? As an adult, I see through the lens of memory a small, suntanned, curly-haired little boy who wanted someone to come after him. To say, “We see you. We love you. You’re valued.” A child of three or four is just on the verge of self-awareness, so I can’t say that these cries for attention were conscious ones. I do think that I wanted to act like a man, in whatever way I might achieve that goal. I wanted to be tough and self-sufficient like my father, like an Upton, but at the same time, I wanted someone to acknowledge that I mattered. Mattered to whom? Anyone? Anything? That question took me years to ask in the right way, let alone answer.

On Being an Upton ... What was it about the Upton-Tweedy clan that made us all want to be worthy of our name and to carve out our own chapter in the family history? I don’t know, but the desire was strong, not just with me but with my brothers and cousins as well.

Our California roots trace back farther than those of just about anyone I’ve ever met. A fifth-generation Californian, I was born on July 15, 1960, in Newport Beach, California, and named Albert William Upton after my grandfather.

My father, James Upton, and his brother, Tom, had been raised on a ranch about forty miles inland from the California coast. I have sixteen-millimeter footage of him astride Shetland ponies when he was just a toddler. In some ways, Dad and Uncle Tom had a childhood that many boys could only dream of. My grandparents’ hired hands were always willing to show young masters Jim and Tom how to bridle and saddle a horse. Jim and Tom hunted and fished and learned to love the outdoors.

The family also owned several boats. One was a ketch they named The Butcher Boy because it had been a boat that hauled beef out to commercial vessels. That boat has been completely restored and is now on display at the San Diego Maritime Museum. Later Dad acquired a Catalina catamaran christened El Gato (The Cat) and various powerboats. Often one of the boats would be docked on Catalina Island next to Errol Flynn’s yacht, The Zacca.

Jim and Tom grew up comfortable both in and on the water. They learned free diving as well as scuba diving and were experienced campers under the wide, dry California skies.

Their mother, Aileen Tweedy — called Tippy (later Tip) from her childhood habit of walking on her tiptoes — was the daughter of early California ranchers. James, nicknamed Muzzie, and Aileen (the same name as her daughter) were prosperous orange growers who were part owners with other family members of the only Sunkist packing plant in Southern California.

My grandmother Tippy must have been a brave and bold young girl. When she got angry with a member of her family, she would storm out of the house, jump on her horse, and ride alone and unprotected for two days to visit her Auntie Bunn in Oxnard, which was then just a dusty outpost on the lower central coast. Auntie Bunn lives there to this day in the same house with the same furniture — same everything. Walking into it is like visiting a museum that features a display of late Victorian summer-cottage style.

A woman of great wit and a sharp mind, Tip trained as a biochemist at nearby Whittier College, a prestigious liberal arts school of Quaker origins — though my family was totally secular. She dated fellow student Richard Nixon a few times before she began dating one of her professors, Albert Upton, the dean of the English department and a professor of Russian literature and drama.

Albert, of course, was my grandfather. (He taught Nixon and directed the future president in an undergraduate drama production.) When Albert and Tip married, the family continued as casual friends with the Nixon and Spiro Agnew families. (Later in my story I’ll share my experience with Watergate and with Nixon’s resignation.)

Albert Upton was a standout even among several larger-than-life relatives who took places of honor in my family tree. Although a professor at a school with religious roots, he was an atheist. Fluent in Russian, he was also highly respected in the field of semantics. In 1941 he authored Design for Thinking, a classic textbook for teachers. In 1960, the year I was born, the New York Times reported that the Upton Method raised the intelligence of more than two hundred students by ten points in a test group. Educators still borrow from his ideas in their quest to teach their students how to think.

Multi-talented Grandfather Albert Upton was also a dedicated outdoorsman and rancher, skilled in the art of horsewhipping to punish Jim’s and Tom’s misbehavior. My father carried on his tradition by using new versions of whipping on my brothers and me. Not that Grandpa Albert and my father were unusually cruel — whipping was common among ranching families as a form of punishment in those days.

My grandmother Tip’s father, Muzzie, was also known to crack that piece of leather from time to time. Muzzie was a character, no doubt about it. I never knew him, but I sure wish I could have. Whenever my great-grandmother held a large dinner party at the ranch house, he would take the time beforehand to hide a large pitcher of water in a bathroom that adjoined the main dining hall. Just prior to carving the main course, he would excuse himself to go to the restroom. He would shut the door and pour out into the toilet the large pitcher of water he had hidden, raising it to a height calculated to cause a loud, slow, embarrassing stream that all the guests could hear. He’d save a few drops at the end to make a realistic “dup, dup,” flush the toilet, and return to the dining hall.

By this time, the guests had run out of things to talk about and were awaiting the host’s return so they could eat. He’d take his place and begin to carve the meat. Meanwhile, the guests would be sure that he hadn’t washed his hands because they hadn’t heard a faucet running. I don’t know if they lost their appetites for the meal as a result, but as a child I thought this stunt was hysterical.

My extended family on my dad’s side was prosperous but not aristocratic, though they did live comfortably with a sense of unspoken entitlement to the simple, outdoorsy goodness of life in California. Not so my mother’s family. Her childhood was poor and life was pretty harsh. My mother’s name was Eva Jean Ingersol, though “Ingersol” was only one of several last names she went by in whatever school she was attending at the time.

Jean’s mother, Lois, was half Cherokee and had grown up on an Oklahoma reservation. Her mother was Eva Storm, a full-blooded Cherokee. My mother has told me stories of Grandma Lois, describing a small but tough woman with a keen eye for inventing, and what an invention she came up with. She raised hens and rigged up a nifty device made from two boards for quickly yanking the head off a chicken. She went through seven husbands. Each time she couldn’t maintain her marriage or was hard up for money, she would put my mother and her brother, Jim, into foster homes. When her luck would change for the better, she’d come back for them.

Lois did not spare her two children from beatings. Mom says that she and Jim would climb into the tops of trees to escape her wrath, but Lois would casually take a comfortable sitting position beneath the tree, calmly smoking a pipe. She’d remind them that eventually they would have to come down, and she’d be waiting.

As she grew older, my grandmother never did mellow. I remember her only as spiteful to my mother, but her last husband, Ernest Palmero, was kind to me. They were avid square dancers, and I remember the two of them dressed for a night of allemande lefts — she in her many layers of colorful petticoats, he in his cowboy shirt and hat. I think he also had some Native American blood, and he was a World War II hero who had been decorated enough times to fill a box of medals.

My Grandma Lois died of leukemia in 1970. That is all I know of my mother’s background except for one detail that I discovered when I was nine years old. Before she met and married my father, my mother had been married to a man who was extremely abusive to her and their two sons. Prior to this news, my sister Kim and I had no idea that our brothers, Jimmy (ten years older than I) and Ronnie (eight years older), were our half-brothers.

After my mother married my father, my brothers were adopted and given the names James Tweedy Upton (after my father) and Ronald Walker (another family name) Upton. As an adult I can see that these names were gifts to them. Names have always held great importance in my family, hence the recurrence of the same ones throughout the generations. I never considered Jim and Ron as any less than full-blood brothers and still don’t. They simply are my brothers.

My Upton-Tweedy relatives were crass, witty, jovial, sarcastic, and intelligent. I loved every minute I was with them. I wanted to stack up favorably to them and still do. And that desire, along with the desire to know that I mattered to someone, is a big part of my story.

Excerpted from "Grace Is Enough" by Willie Aames and Maylo McCaslin-Aames. Copyright 2008 Willie Aames and Maylo McCaslin-Aames. Reprinted with permission of B&H Publishing Group, Inc.