F'ing Donny

by Matt Olson

Donny was my uncle. My mother's side.  Very strange dude. In my earliest memories, he was an insane story-teller. I was perhaps 7 years old when he arrived at our house in Gallup; and he, my mother, and I left for what was a long drive to Albuquerque. My father was somewhere, but not there.

Uncle Don took it upon himself to entertain me, given that car radios did not work much in those days and that we had 3 or 4 hours of drive ahead of us. Somehow, he roped me into the world of Roger. I fell for it and asked who Roger was, and he began spinning a tale about a fellow who had a pointy head-- no hair up there. He did have hair fringe-- front, back and over the ears. No hair on his pointy top. He was short--maybe only 5 feet tall. Roger also had a speech impediment. Donny delighted in talking like Roger. Like Donny, Roger's last name was Nylund. Roger, of course, said "Hewwo, ny mame id Roner Nynan." This was huge for a kid my age. I fell out completely, breathlessly, with stomach cramps because I was laughing so hard. Like most 7 year old kids,  I was not sensitive to the conditions of others. As I was rolling around on the floor of the backseat (no seatbelts in those days), I asked my mother why she had never told me about Roger, but she never really answered. Some kind of remark about how Roger was just a special friend of Don's.

The miles rolled by, and I learned how Roger tried to eat an ice cream cone but smacked himself in the forehead with it. More hilarity as Donny mimicked how Roger licked the ice cream as it melted down his face and cheeks. I heard about the time that Roger managed, despite his speech problem, and after a long dialogue with a waitress,  to order a " Moot Meer Fnote" and then pour it in his lap.  After a few hours, Uncle Don's Roger stories dried up, but kids that age are awfully annoying. He switched into stories about real members of the family, which were equally hilarious but somehow a little scary. 

Did I forget to mention? Donny was a Catholic Franciscan Priest.

Not long after planting Roger in my brain,  he was off to Paraguay to manage some parish in the jungle. He was already fluent in Spanish, so whoever was in charge figured that he could hold his own. Most of his parishoners, however, were native Guarani, and lots of them didn't speak Spanish. He became fluent in Guarani in a few weeks, and he even menaced the local Cura who invoked against the Holy Roman Church. This was his first mistake, perhaps: The language gift was on record. He learned some other native dialects, met some unshady folks who dealt in stolen goods, bought a huge Macaw to be his guard-dog, and put in maybe five jungle years. 

He came back to Los Angeles, and the next time I saw him, he was in some LA hospital (actually a single bed in a double room) after a heart attack. Maybe I was 11 or 12. He looked awfully pale. He had the oxygen thing in his nose and a couple of IV drips going. His mood was good, despite the recent event. At some point during the visit, a nurse came in, and there were intro's all round. She told us that they were trying to figure out the problem, but were really not sure what was going on. The problem? It appears that, every morning since Donny was hospitalized, the empty bed in his room was ruffled, as if someone had slept there. All that Donny could tell them was that there was a short man named Roger, bald on top, fringe all round, who slept there. Unky Don had lots of hospital staff looking for a vagrant with a speech impediment and a small dog who was his constant companion. Roger's dog was named Roger, as well, and he apparently barked funny.

Time goes by. I didn't see him much during the in-betweens. Next time I am accurate about hanging with him, I was in my first year of college. I was at UW Madison in pre-med, but that was a doomed venture. I blame my sanity and The War. I flew to see my parents, now relocated to California, for the holidays, and we drove down to LA to see more family. My folks wound up leaving me with Donny at the parish in Compton, CA. They took off to have a vacation. No... no molestation from any of the priests that I met. And gangsters were just being born.

What there was, was plenty of weird behavior. I stayed in a guest room at the rectory, and I ate when the Maid served food. First night, we were dining--just the two of us-- when the doorbell rang. His words were " I hope it's not another fucking Mexican." Curiously, in 1969 Compton, it was. I could never see him in the same way again. Donny carried a version of the bad gene, and even as a priest, he let it out for a walk now and then. Either Thursday or Friday night that week, Donny informed me that we were going out to Malibu for an overnight... He and I and three other priests. I rode on the back of his Harley, and we met the three other priests on their Harleys at a double-wide on the beach near Point Mugu. We played poker and drank Bourbon. I was 18. I didn't pass out, and I didn't barf in the Pacific. Not a single priest touched me. They were very interested in hippie girls, however. Needed lots of detailed information.

The night before my parents re-appeared and hauled me back to the safety of the Bay Area, Donny and I got into one. He was talking about how he told fortunes and could see the future and how he could do all this great bullshit that had nothing to do with being a priest. At some point, I scoffed and baited him and dared him to tell my fortune. He went to a closet and retrieved a black, velvet bag. In the bag was his crystal ball, of course. He removed it, polished it, peered into it for about a minute, and said "You will never finish premed; you will never be a doctor. You will be a teacher and writer, and you will actually make money writing." I blew up. Had a real tantrum. I swore an oath that I would never be a high school English teacher. At least I was right about that one. I worry about the rest. All of it.

Saw him one more time during his tenure as a priest. My college girlfriend and I took a spring break during my senior year. It was my only, for real, college spring break, but there is no way to catch up now. We drove down to LA with an invitation from another uncle-- Don's younger brother Charles,  the baby of the family, and Chuck to only a few of us. In 1973, Chuck was outrageously gay and out. He died because of AIDS complications in first wave of AIDS deaths. He was my favorite uncle, perhaps because all the rest were so unpredictable. We had a great time with him.  I will always treasure that visit, but not the girlfriend. Chuck took us out to a restaurant on Sunset, where I had abalone. Best ever and nothing like that since. The day came, during the visit, when Chuck had some business, and Don was called to entertain us. When he arrived, we piled into my car, a 1972 AMC Gremlin (Fuck You Purple), and headed, with him at the wheel, for the Santa Monica pier area. Unc Don had recently been directed, by his Bishop, to dump his Harley and get a car. He figured that a nice little two-seat Porsche 914 was the car for him. When he hit 40 or 50 mph in first gear, I had to remind him that he was in my car--not his. This mostly pissed him off, but he did shift. On the way, he explained that we were going to visit my cousin Mike-- same Mikey from the Bad Gene story. Donny the priest explained that when Mikey came back from his 4 year absence in the Haight, his hair was down to his waist. Uncle Don found this so offensive that, in his words, he "put a curse" on him. Told him that if he didn't cut it off, it would ALL fall out. He laughed as he recalled (and Mike did not laugh when he confirmed) that a few days later, the hair began falling out in handfuls. It stopped when Mike went to an old fashioned barber and buzzed it down. I think I know how he did it, but both he and Mike are dead. All I have are one or two untestable hypotheses.

When we got to the pier, Don drove up very close to one of those horrible pier apartments that used to exist and probably still do. He hammered on the horn and got out of the car. He banged on the window of the apartment and screamed all sorts of outrageous gibberish and threats. "I know you are in there you little son-of-a-bitch! If you don't come out, I'm coming in." They didn't get along so well in those days, and I really wondered why we were doing this.  On the other hand, I was not in charge. Mikey never came out, and that was a good thing. If he was assaulted by our Unky Don in that state of mind, Mike might have hurt him badly if not worse. We left with Don in a huge sulking pout. I wonder how his mood would have changed if Mikey actually emerged from his shack. 

Not long after that incident in 1973, Don was done with the priesthood. He had been fooling around with a woman named Kathy, and the fooling got serious enough that they got married. I never actually met her, but what I know is interesting. They both had gifts for languages. Somehow their talents were noticed by the right people, and they were offered joint positions for an entity that Donny only referred to as "The Company." They moved to Washington, DC, where The Company kept headquarters, and I never saw him again, although the news kept coming in. My mother went to visit them; and by that time, Don and Kathy were living on some large farm-like setting outside of DC in Virginia. The Company must have paid well. She enjoyed the visit, but Uncle Don had a sideline business breeding wolves with German Shepards. The resulting guard dogs were bought as soon as they were bred, but my mother, usually a sucker for dogs, didn't like them.  She said they were beautiful, but they were always sneaking behind you and lurking there. 

Next big news I remember was that Don and Kathy got their first overseas assignment for The Company. Beruit Lebanon in 1983! Can you imagine? Lots of family were proud. I wasn't sure what to think. "I hope it's not another fucking Lebanese?" Yes, they were both fluent in Lebanese before they took the trip. 

And then there was the bombing of the US Embassy in Beruit. Somehow, both Donny and Kathy were in the embassy building when it blew. Apparently, The Company was doing bidness with the Embassy. They both survived. In a telephone conversation with Uncle Don, he described how he was up on th 3rd or 4th floor (I don't remember) of this office building. He was heading out of an office area toward a door to a hallway, carrying a bunch of documents that he was supposed to destroy (for The Company). Just as he reached for the door knob, he dropped the files he was carrying. 

When he bent over to pick them up, the building blew up. He was tossed away from the door. No bruises, no harm, no foul. He stood up and opened the door to the hallway--just to see what had happened. There was no there there. The entire piece of the building beyond the door was gone. Kathy was somewhere down below. Alive.

The Company sent them back to DC for language training. Next was Moscow, where, because of  6 weeks training, they were fluent in Russian.  Moscow stressed them out. Back to DC to learn Swahili. Off to Chad, Africa. Too many gunshot attempts and back to Washington. Somewhere in the timeline, I lost track. Last I knew, they were living in Virginia, near DC. They were about to sell it all and move back to California. They had no pensions. They had no retirement accounts. They died, hungry and sick,  on the roadside on their ways home. 

Despite all, in his last days, Donny was a corporate fascist. He never confessed that The Company was the CIA. He was an ugly person who defended the Death Penalty and Gun Rights and championed any Bigotry you can spot-- including that against  his own brother's proud Gay Life. 

This is what happens when you work half of your life for Church and the rest for the CIA. Choices have consequences.

I love my Uncle Chuck forever. My demented mother still thinks I am him, whenever she thinks I am anybody. My other two maternal uncles were Warren, who stole money from us, and Don. I'm not sure who wins the "worst" prize. I'm leaning but haven't decided yet. Soon. One time when we bailed Warren out of jail, he brought his pet monkey to our house. That tilts the scale a bit.