Matt McDougal Biography
Written by Michael Garrett Herring
Note: This is the original bio Michael wrote for Matt. Many events and timing were changed in the creation of the timeline and the final play.
Matthew (Matt) McDougal was born in August 1922 in Newark NJ. He was the son of James and Ada McDougal. He was the oldest of three siblings, Rodney (1924), Orville (1925), and Audrey (1927). After returning from the war in Europe, Matt’s dad bought a neighborhood drugstore and soda fountain. James met Ada in 1920 and they married in 1921. Matt was born the following year. All the while Matt was growing up his dad worked long hours; he opened the store in the morning, worked all day and closed the store at night. Money was tight and he couldn’t afford to pay someone to help him to manage the store; he had to do it himself. The store was just a few blocks from the house and James could sneak away for an hour or two here and there when he needed to be home.
Matt was always a responsible kid. When he was younger he would help his mother with shores around the house. He was told it was his responsibility as the oldest son. When he was young his dad would lecture him about duty and responsibility. Matt was expected to watch his siblings and take responsibility when his mom had to run to the market or other errands. He was proud to take responsibility to care for his siblings and took the responsibility very seriously. Matt began helping his dad with the drugstore when he was 11. He started serving customers at the soda fountain in the afternoons after school. When he started his dad had to give him a soap box to stand on so that he could reach the ice cream and pull the soda taps. When Matt was 14 his dad gave him more responsibility and Matt began to help his dad take inventory and fill prescriptions. Matt’s dad paid the boy a modest salary in exchange for all of his hard work. Matt was frugal and saved every penny he could.
While the depression hit the family pretty hard, it didn’t hit them as hard as most people. His dad’s drugstore and soda fountain continued to do enough business to keep the family a float. Matt took great pride in his work. His father taught him that the quality of a man’s character is reflected in the quality of his work. It was during his summer break right after his freshman year that Matt and his dad became close. Matt was working nearly full time with his dad. When business was slow they would listen to Yankee games and talked about everything, especially girls and what it meant to be a man. It was that summer that James (Jimmy) McDougal became Matt’s best friend.
The family was Irish Catholic. The McDougal’s went to mass every Sunday and never missed a Holy Day. Matt went to the Catholic school and was taught by nuns. He joined the church and was confirmed in 1935 with the rest of his classmates. Did Matt fit in at school? What were his friends like? What group was he in? Matt was an average student. He didn’t like reading or “book learning” too much. He preferred to spend his free time playing sports, going to the movies, and hanging out with his buddies rather than reading a book.
Matt was good looking. He’d always get nervous when girls would sit at the soda fountain and flirt with him. He felt awkward and didn’t know how to respond to their advances. While not shy, Matt couldn’t be characterized as an extravert, he was pretty quiet and preferred to keep to himself. However, he did get to know Maria; she was an Italian girl in his class at school. He got to know her in spite of his awkwardness, she made him feel comfortable. The two began dating her in 1939. Neither his nor Maria’s parents approved at first. His family was Irish and her family was Italian. This caused a bit of a conflict at first, but the couple fell in love and insisted on pursuing their relationship. They would go to the pictures together on Saturday nights and mass on Sunday mornings. The two of them began to get serious in 1941 when Matt asked Maria to marry him. She accepted his proposal and they planned on getting married in December. Unfortunately the Japanese had other ideas which interrupted the couple’s plans when they bombed Pearl Harbor.
The couple put their nuptials on hold and joined the Marines. Maria got a job at a local munitions factory and began making parts for bombs. Matt felt it was his duty to defend his country from the Nazi’s and Japs; it was the right thing to do. He enlisted along with his brothers Rodney and Orv. They went off to boot camp at Parris Island in South Carolina.
After boot camp he was stationed in Honolulu while his brothers went to Europe. He was wounded in the Battle of Midway. He was awarded a Purple Heart and was sent back to Honolulu where he served as supply steward for navy destroyers and aircraft carriers. His experience working in his dad’s drugstore taught him how to take inventory, order, and disperse supplies. He was grateful that he was wounded and stationed state side to support the war effort from behind the lines. His experience during the battle of Midway destroyed all of his allusions of grandeur. He loved and missed his Maria and looked forward to a life with her. He didn’t want to die on a battle field.
Matt returned to Newark after being discharged from the Marines and married Maria in February 1946. He began attending a small community college on the GI Bill and began to study medicine. He had always dreamed of being a doctor ever since he started working in his dad’s drugstore. He was fascinated with how medicines interacted with the body to heal people and make them feel better. He wanted to learn the science behind the magic. School never came easily to Matt so he had to work particularly hard in an effort to keep up with his peers.
Unfortunately he had to drop out of college when his dad suddenly died from a massive heart attack in May of 1946, just three months after marrying Maria. The death of his father was a complete shock to the family. But it hit Matt particularly hard. To say that he admired his dad would be an understatement, he worshipped his dad. Matt’s dad embodied every possible positive attribute known to mankind. He was a kind and compassionate man while being just and fair. During the Depression when his customers, who he considered family, needed him to fill a prescription but didn’t have the money, Matt’s dad would fill the prescription and give it to his customers for free. He was also known to accept a dozen eggs, or a few pounds of potatoes in exchange for the medicine. Matt’s dad was also just. One time Matt remembers a fight that broke out in front of his dad’s store on a hot afternoon one July. Three white men were beating a young Negro boy. They accused him of looking at a White woman. The three of them had the boy cornered and were beating and kicking him. Matt’s dad grabbed the Billy Club he kept behind the counter for protection and defended the Negro boy. “Even though niggers aren’t as bright as we are they still don’t need to be treated like dogs. They’re still human beings.” He said after the incident.
While all of Matt’s siblings had worked at their father’s drugstore at some point in their life, Matt was the obvious choice to take over the operation. He understood the operation better than his siblings and he felt that taking over the drugstore was the best way to honor his father’s memory. Although it was hard for him to give up his dream of becoming a doctor he was willing to make the sacrifice. The store was doing well and it provided a good income for his mother and family. Matt’s dad had done little to prepare the family financially so the success of the store was important for his mother’s survival.
Matt and Maria decided to give up their apartment and move into his mother’s house to help take care of her. His brothers were married and lived in other states while his sister was in her first year at Vassar College. This decision made perfect sense. His mom had a large empty house and hated to live alone and Matt and Maria lived in a cramped apartment.
Matt and Maria had their first child in August of 1946. They named him James the third in honor of Matt’s dad. Matt adored his little boy. He’d hurry to get his work done at the store so he could get home to play with his boy before going to bed. In fact Matt and Maria Matt would often argue over Junior’s bedtime. Maria would insist on putting the child to bed but Matt would keep the boy up longer that what he should’ve. Matt and Maria had a daughter in January of 1948. They named her Lolita after Maria’s mother. He loved Lolita just as much, if not more than James. As far as he was concerned she was daddies little girl. But tragedy struck in 1950 when Maria gave birth to a still born son. The death of the newborn destroyed Maria and consumed her with guilt. She had started helping out in the drugstore while she was pregnant. Matt’s mom did not support this decision and made her opinion known at every chance she had. Ada would always make snide remarks when Maria would leave her children with her mother-in-law when she left for work. Ada blamed Maria for the child’s death. In fact, Matt’s mom accused Maria of killing the boy during the child’s wake. She quietly whispered the accusation while she kneeling in prayer next to Maria.
Consumed with guilt, Maria started taking pain killers from the drugstore and became addicted to barbiturates. Matt ignored the problem at first and excused her behavior because of her grief. But when it became apparent that Maria couldn’t stop taking them then Matt began to enable his wife’s habit. He would adjust his inventory and alter his books to hide the fact that his wife was abusing pain killers. He created fictitious customers and fill prescriptions for them. He was able to avoid the authorities for decades. Matt tried to help his wife but she was inconsolable. They would have serious fights when he tried to convince his wife to stop.
Matt tried to make the best of a tragic situation and convince his wife to try to have more children but Maria could not get past her last pregnancy. She never wanted to have sex for fear she would get pregnant. She would only have sex if Matt used a rubber. But being a devote Roman Catholic Matt was against any form of birth control. This only added tension to the relationship with her husband. This behavior went on until 1958 when Maria left the family to join a convent. She had made her decision after her confession with Father O’Brien. She claimed that the Blessed Virgin had appeared to her while performing penance and showed her that the path to her salvation was through a life of service and celibacy. Matt learned of this decision when he came home from the store one Friday night. Ada was visiting her cousin Elizabeth in Philadelphia. Maria had sent James and Lolita to stay with friends while she packed her bags and waited for her husband to get home. She was sitting at the kitchen table with her bags when Matt walked through the door. Matt begged her not to go but she wouldn’t listen to his pleas. Eventually he resigned himself to the fact that he not only lost a child 8 years ago, but also lost his wife and best friend. She was gone and there was no way to get her back.
Matt tried to explain his wife’s decision to his two children but neither of them could understand. They resented their mother and they resented the Catholic Church. How could a church support a decision for a mother to leave her children. Matt’s mom was a huge help raising the two children until she got sick in 1962 and died. But by this time Jimmy and his sister were old enough to look after themselves.
The death of his mother hit Matt surprisingly hard. He and his mother had always had conflicts; they were so much alike that they fought. After his mother’s death Matt felt alone in the world. This made him focus more of his attention and energy into his children and on the store.
With the death of his mother he expects Jimmy to take responsibility for his sister and help out in the store just like he did. But Jimmy hated the whole Soda Jerk identity and preferred to hang out with his buddies, smoke cigarettes, and listen to rock n’ roll. Matt preferred to listen to the big bands like Benny Goodman and Guy Lombardo. Matt and Jimmy would argue over the radio station when they were driving somewhere in Matt’s 1961 Studebaker.
Jimmy enlists in the infantry on his 18th birthday, against the wishes of his father. Jimmy wants to escape the intense pressure that his dad is placing on him. He wants to go off and become a man.