Loner in Friendly
Prince Georges County, Maryland, borders both Montgomery County and Washington, D.C. Of the two suburbs, it is Prince Georges that is considered to be the poor stepsister. In this county, near the District of Columbias border is the unincorporated community of Friendly. It is here that Wilson grew up.
His father, Eldred, seemed respectable enough. He had been named Most Likely to Succeed when graduating from high school in 1926 but that honor was the high point of his life. After taking some accounting courses he chose a steady, secure job at the U.S. House of Representatives inside the Sergeant at Arms office. His wife, Ethel, was content to become a housewife. Garrett, born in June 1956, was to be their only child.
Eldred had a secret. It was bad enough he smoked four to five packs of cigarettes a day. But Garrett Wilsons father was also an alcoholic who drank himself into a stupor each evening.
He had his bar just behind the dining room table and would walk back and forth to the kitchen to get ice and water for his drinks, Wilsons childhood friend, John Farley, said. He began with beer and usually switched to scotch by nine.
Ethel was a social drinker, unwilling to match her husbands boozing habits. Instead, she became close to her son. Perhaps too close.
Why, my God, she breast-fed him until he was 4, said Jackie Sandoe, who married Eldreds nephew. When Garrett reached his teens, she would taunt him in front of his friends with remarks like this: You did chin-ups on my boobs forever.
He would have it out as soon as he walked through the door from work, Wilson remembered. It was usually because I had argued with my mother. But the beatings never lasted long. He was always in a hurry to open up the liquor cabinet and have that first drink.
He could talk the fleas off a dog, recalled Farley.
One high school sweetheart, Jane Edmunds, was the daughter of a Baptist church minister where the family attended services. In her sophomore year, Wilson would write this missive in her yearbook.
Youre a crazy girl (sometimes).
The next year, when he was 17, he proposed marriage to her. He asked me to marry him in the 11th grade, the preachers daughter said. He once sent me several dozen roses, and when he popped the question, he had a diamond ring with him. We hadnt gone out that much, but I have to say, he certainly was a ladies man. That was surprising, considering what he had to work with.
Wilsons other talent was music. He could have made a career of it, so prodigious were his abilities.
When I was 9, I was walking by a local music chain with my mother," Wilson recalled. I went into the showroom, sat down at a piano and played The Marine Hymn. My mother was totally surprised. She didnt know I could play at all.
Wilson was precocious. He had taught himself to play while staying at an aunts house the week before. Ethel Wilson thought she had a young Mozart on her hands and immediately scheduled lessons. After two sessions, he quit.
My teacher wanted me to play one kind of music and I wanted to play another, was his explanation. He certainly had enough natural skill to make others take notice. Wilson could listen to a tune on the radio and then play the composition within an hour. But he avoided Chopin and Bach, though he was more than talented enough to perform classical music. Instead he chose the likes of John Denver or Neil Diamond, which he would play while singing the lyrics to woman after woman. It was a potent combination for romantic conquests.
Wilsons constant pursuit of the opposite sex was destined to get him into trouble. It soon did. He impregnated a young woman, Shelly, in early 1976, and thenat her requestmarried her that March so that the child, a son, couldnt be labeled a bastard. Shelly filed for divorce the day after the courthouse wedding. His father hushed up the affair, keeping it a secret, even from his wife.
By now, the health habits of his parents were catching up with them. His father began suffering blackout spells at his U.S. Capitol job and was forced to retire. He gasped with every step, suffering from both tuberculosis and emphysema. Neither crisis stopped Eldred Wilson from his addictions. He still smoked five packs a day even while hauling an oxygen tank around. Drunk each night, he no longer walked to his bedroom but crawled there on his hands and knees. Surprisingly, Wilsons mother was the first to die. Wilson discovered his mother dead in bed of a heart attack on a Saturday morning in August 1976, as he brought breakfast toast and coffee into the room. Her husband was in an alcoholic haze beside her.
With Ethel gone, Eldred deteriorated fast, the emphysema slowly strangling him. Their son reacted by putting his father in a nursing home. That gave him control of the family house and funds. The money would go fast but his father went faster.
I would go to the nursing home to visit and drag a piano down the hall to play for him, Wilson said. Often, he would shoo me away but I never let it bother me. I just played for the others.
His father died in August 1979, nearly three years to the day after his mother passed away. Wilsons reaction to becoming an orphan was to go on a wild spending spree, buying a new car, a horse, a purebred German shepherd, and building himself both a weight room and a music studio in the basement of the family home in Friendly. He was soon broke and in debt.
Before Eldred died, he had used his connections to get his son a $13,000-a-year job at the U.S. House of Representatives. Desperate, Garrett Wilson burglarized a safe in the office, stealing $40,000. He faked an injury, saying he had been overwhelmed by two other men. The police didnt buy the story and Wilson quickly confessed and led them to the cash.
It was a stupid thing to do, Wilson admitted. He pleaded guilty, got a five-year suspended-sentence and a fine, and decided to raise money by selling the house. He needed to he was married again and there was another baby on the way.