a friend of mine grew up in the jungles of Africa. another lived in snowy New York. still another spent their childhood on a remote Montana ranch. people from different places, which taught them different things. but while the sum of our experiences define what we know, the tapestry of our childhood moments have a more important place in our lives…to some degree, they comprise who we are. some good, some bad, and many unintended. in the end, the things that have built us up and torn us down a million times aren’t white-capped hills or the tropical heat; neither are they sunsets across the plains nor the sounds of a midnight train just over the bluff. they aren’t how to use a snow plow or where to find the north star. they are the people–the kindness, the cruelty, and everything in between.
when i was growing up in Bessemer, Alabama, my mom was a pretty laid back parent–not in every way, but she allowed me to sort of do my own thing. and that made sense: i was a good kid; i didn’t do things that were wrong. period. and so she never really punished me. my father took the opposite approach.
during my formative years, my dad spent time with me and taught me that i could be anything i wanted. it fed my confidence and laid a foundation of emotional security. even though he was very strict, he was also the guy who took me on camping trips with the church, who practiced basketball moves with me in the basement, and who took me to the batting cages and taught me how to bait a hook. but gradually, as i got older, things changed.
when it came to kids, my father didn’t believe in simply leading by example. according to him, a kid was a wild stallion that had to be broken. and even though i was about as untame as a show pony, he put me through the paces.
many of the memories made with my family were magical, and early on, my dad appeared to understand the great worth of imagination and wonderment, but those things seemingly disappeared from his mind over time…something happened. i don’t know what it was, and i never wondered if it was me. but something left him and never came back, just as i would do later on. i would fight that exit with straggling attempts to stay, until i was sure that nothing would ever change him. nothing would ever restore what once was. but as a child, and to this day, i kept my imagination. i tried to retain my view of the real things that only children see. i’ve remembered that kids don’t perceive things through a lens of innocence; rather, it is we as adults who glimpse this life through a lens of innocence lost. our view of the world is in fact not clearer than theirs, but more clouded. i will always believe this, and yet i sometimes think the clouds in my eyes are rain clouds from many things i experienced as a child…still, i shake my head and try to focus, try to see the world…the greens and blues and everything among them…
the many things…
when you’re a kid, a yard is never just an acre of dirt and grass. it’s a golden opportunity. when i was growing up, my backyard was a sportsplex for me and my friends. some days it was a baseball field. other times, a football field. in the fall, it was a great place to roll in the leaves. sometimes it was a a soft floor to race barefoot across, or the setting for a summer search for the perfect 4-leaf clover. and many evenings, up until time to eat, we made the best of that lush playground. a playground that was hard to ever leave–
when i was outside playing with my next-door neighbors and my mother called me into the house for dinner, sometimes we would have a tie game. once the call went out, we knew that the next touchdown belonged to the winner. so the ball was hiked and handed, kicked or thrown, run or stopped. time was ticking. my mother would go inside and wait. then she would either call again or just start eating without me, and i’d be in soon enough. my dad, on the other hand, would call only once. the next time he came out, there would be a belt in his hands.
–and he didn’t mind using it. he told me countless times that the Bible said he must, because it said “spare the rod, spoil the child.” many nights in my room, just before my whipping, i would tell him that, first of all, the Bible actually didn’t say that; and secondly, according to my Bible Dictionary, the word “rod” only meant “authority” rather than his interpretation as a physical rod. he never seemed to appreciate my research, nor did he recognize the good sense of my suggestion that i whip him, since he said it hurt him more than it did me when he did it. i offered many times to give him a lashing and really punish me good. he never went for it; instead, he held the belt, and clasped his hand around my wrist, and swung the folded leather strap. the thick belt with the heavy buckle. the one he would snap together as he made his way down the hallway of our house in rural Eastern Valley. i would hear the jingling of the buckle, and the crack of a whip, and know that i was only moments away from another beating.
was it really a beating? he didn’t do it out of reckless anger; it was out of conviction. i did not end up black and blue, only red and welted; and i’m quite aware that my problems weren’t nearly as bad as a lot of kids’. not by a long shot. even so: my life was the only life i knew, and it was my struggle; i compared it to the life i wanted… around the neighborhood, kids got spanked. some were switched with a thin branch, others were given a handslap to the seat of their pants. and some were hit with a belt. but it seemed to me that what i received, in both ferocity and frequency, wasn’t typical. it wasn’t a spanking. it was something more. and something worse. my dad called it “tearing me up.” and i guess it did.
i got whipped for everything. he told me he was teaching me discipline. and i suppose he was right about that. i learned the discipline of moving on, despite what was happening to me. he was quick to use “the rod.” if he told me to brush my teeth, and when he returned i hadn’t done it, i’d get a whipping. if he told me to come upstairs, and he came back down again to get me, i knew what was going to happen.
and around the time i turned twelve, everything intensified.
i had a friend named randy at school. he was the craziest guy i’d ever known, and many days his antics were the highlight of afternoon class time. after we’d been friends for a while, i asked my mom if randy could come home with me one afternoon and go to church basketball practice. she said yes, and i couldn’t have been more excited. i couldn’t believe it was actually going to happen. that day, the school bell rang, and instead of randy waiting for his ride, he went with ME. to MY BUS. to ride the WHOLE WAY HOME. to MY HOUSE. i couldn’t wait for him to see it. and my backyard. and play football with me and jason, my best friend and next-door neighbor. randy would see my bedroom, and all my cool stuff, and then we’d meet up at church, and take the big old church bus to the gym. this was MONUMENTAL. randy saw me at school, but now he was going to see my world. things would never be the same. what was next? spending the night? maybe randy and jason could both stay one night. maybe we could build something in the woods. maybe the three of us could camp out. the possibilities were endless, and i felt more electrified with every bus stop, each one putting us one step closer to mine. it was a ride toward destiny, past the shacks and old houses in the broken down part of town. past the cow pastures. around the little businesses along Eastern Valley Road…the hair salon, the mechanic shop, the pharmacy, the video store…i couldn’t believe it when the bus turned right onto Ferro Avenue, my street. it pulled up to my mailbox, and the big double doors opened. this was the moment. this was when randy got to see my life. he and jason and i walked up the driveway…it was GREAT to be a kid.
we stood there in the sunshine, the three of us…halfway between my house and jason’s. right in front of us was my basketball goal. behind that seemed like miles of grass leading back to the old swingset that was only good for monkeybarring and tricks on the rings. and back a little farther was the big tree we sometimes climbed, and the woods where jason and i had dug boobie traps and had adventures that are only possible in the minds of children. and in my preteen mind, TODAY was magical, today was everything possible, and today was ours.
we threw our stuff into my living room and headed straight out back. there we were, the three of us, practicing field goals over the swingset, throwing the football (randy had a great arm), and just hanging out. i’d looked so forward to this for a long time. randy was the wildest kid in class. and now he was here, with me, at my house. life was good.
just a few short minutes into our new era of friendship and backyard play, my dad pulled up in the driveway. he called me inside, and i waited too late to go. he came out into the yard and gave me a beating right in front of my new friend. he gripped my wrist, rared back, and struck me. one…two…three…time froze… i felt as if God had jerked me up into a tornado, and everything around me was spinning, but in the center of the chaos i was suddenly still. and the world was a loud cacophony of madness, yet quiet enough for me to hear every jingle of the buckle, every whir of wind through the strap, but most of all every sound leaping helplessly from my head. here i was, with my new friend, in my supposed paradise, being belted…four…five…six…each lash seemed to take longer than the last, seemed to make me wait in each awful moment even more, broken up by the sounds of my own crying. and the more i cried, the more i wanted to cry, and the more i wanted to cry, the more i wanted the moment to end. not just the whipping, but everything else, too. the yard. the house. jason. randy. my dad. and me. i just wanted everything to end. for there to be no more of any of it. i felt caught in a storm of humiliation. this was randy’s impression of my world. and sadly, it wasn’t inaccurate. ten.
i went inside. i sat in the living room, crying more, while i watched jason and randy through the window, under golden rays. there was no gold around me.
i was a good kid–polite, friendly, and conscientious. but somehow i got punished more than any kid i knew. i once pointed out to my father that a friend of mine was well behaved, even though he never got whippings, and that i could behave without them too. he said, “you’re right; some kids don’t have to get whippin’s. ____ doesn’t have to be whipped. but you do.”
i didn’t know why i was any different, in his eyes. i wanted him to just try it…just stop the whippings and see how it went. but he wasn’t interested.
nevertheless, at some point, my dad decided i was too big to whip. so he began grounding me. grounding sounded like a breeze compared to being beaten with a belt–at this point, he was on belt number two, having broken the first one on me. so i welcomed a change of pace. as it turned out, it wasn’t so nice.
my father was always very hard on me. i loved baseball, and i played every year; and every night, after every game, we would get in the car, and on the way home, my dad would always ask the same question. “wade, what do you think you did wrong tonight?” i hated this question, and it made no sense to me, because it was baseball. it wasn’t life. it was an obvious win or lose. if you struck out, you knew that was bad. if you dropped the ball, you knew that was bad. why did someone have to get me to confess my game night faults? why was i made to go through the list, verbalizing each misstep?
one night on the way home from a game, we were in my dad’s white and rusted ’66 Ford pickup–me, him, my mom, and my sister, who was four years younger. i waited for the moment, and it came as always. just as we approached the stop sign near my house. “wade, what do you think you did wrong tonight?” i paused, stilted by emotion and held breath. then i exploded. years of anger fired out of me. i yelled at my dad, and as always when he got angry, he turned red and a vein popped out of his forehead. his bottom jaw jutted outward. he looked like a hemorrhaging tomato with an underbite…he was never much for subtlety…and my mother, in customary fashion, told us to quit arguing. she would rarely stand up for me, only tell us both to stop. but there was no stopping him…he began to shake like a hot kettle about to screech…sitting at the intersection, he revved his engine. and the truck too. and as my dad voiced his fury over my disrespect (one of his rules was “you do not dispute my word,” which meant you weren’t allowed to say he was wrong about anything), he floored the Bible-sized gas pedal and peeled out, taking a jolting left and swinging the entire weight of the huge truck to the right. we all lurched toward the passenger side door as the squealing sounds of burning rubber rang out in the night air. my dad’s temper was fierce, and his uncontrolled rages taught me from a young age to never act like an idiot. more and more, if there was one thing i didn’t want, it was to be like him.
and so i suppose that was his thinking, too. because he grounded me for everything. every imperfection. maybe in his eyes, he was going to create the perfect human being. if i did anything that was less than great, it seemed, i was grounded. it always lasted at least a week, and when he grounded me, it wasn’t “you can’t spend the night with a friend this weekend.” grounding meant that i couldn’t do anything. i couldn’t talk on the phone. i couldn’t turn on the tv. i couldn’t go anywhere. i was grounded if i didn’t come to dinner soon enough. i was grounded if i was late for school. in fact, i was grounded if i was late PERIOD. my uncle had always done things with me as a child; we had adventures–the skating rink, lock-ins, fun places and great times with him. one night, my uncle pulled into the driveway, and i wasn’t ready to run down to the car. so because he had to wait a bit, i was grounded. my night with my uncle wasn’t worth the week i would spend in solitary confinement, and so it became obvious that i shouldn’t plan things with him anymore. it was too risky.
quickly, however, i realized that i couldn’t win, regardless. eventually, i didn’t even TRY to be ready on time, for ANYTHING. because i knew something would happen at some point, and i’d be grounded that week anyway. my languid acceptance and melancholy surrender were affirmed a hundred times over, when my dad came up with his most dumbfounding rule: between me and my sister, the last person in the car on sunday morning was grounded. every week. so we knew one of us was going to be grounded, every sunday, no matter what.
and he didn’t just ground me. he had other ways of being tough. and so often, they left me confounded.
after every basketball practice, my dad would take the whole team to the store for snacks. he had two rules: first of all, any kid who didn’t have money could get one kind of candy and one coke. and he’d pay for it. his second rule: i wasn’t allowed to have any candy or coke, because it would spoil my dinner. so i’d sit on the bus, week after week, as my friends ate and drank what my father had bought for them, while i could do neither.
two of my friends at school got a $5 weekly allowance. so i asked my dad if i could have an allowance, too. he wanted to know how much my friends were given. after i told him, he said i could have $3 a week. why did it have to be less than theirs? why was my comparative deficit worth $2 a week to him?
some of my friends got money for A’s and B’s on their report cards. so i asked if i could get that too. instead, he instituted a system whereby one 6 weeks’, i actually owed him money.
he told me that teenagers didn’t matter, that kids had to be tamed, and that their opinions meant nothing. talk back to him, you’re grounded. question his knowledge, you’re grounded. make someone wait, you’re grounded. don’t brush your teeth on time, you’re grounded. you’re grounded. you’re grounded. you’re grounded. and it wasn’t enough for him to battle my imperfections with consequences; he wanted methodology. his increased involvement in my everyday minutia opened a new door for him: the door of process, which would presumably usher me into a finer version of my theretofore flawed self. he decided at some point that i was no longer allowed to do anything when i got home from school, until i finished my homework. so i would come home after 8 hours of school, and instead of being able to turn on the television and take a break, i had to keep the tv off and continue doing schoolwork. not that i could watch tv anyway, because i was grounded from it perpetually. but also: instead of being able to lie on the couch or stretch out on my bed or the floor–which was where i liked to do my work–i had to sit upright at a desk. with the halogen, bar-shaped, shadeless desk lamp on, seering my retinas. i hated bright light, but he absolutely required the lamp to be on. this, for a kid who had always been on the A-B Honor Roll, who was in the National Honor Society. and this, from a man who unsuccessfully attempted Freshman English four times before flunking out of college. and as for the promptness he tried to instill in me, he forgot to lead by example there, too: he was late for everything he did. my mother’s nickname for him was Late Drake.
at times, i felt like a caged animal; i just wanted to live my life, be the person i knew i was supposed to be… i didn’t understand what was going on around me. i guess neither did my parents. and the sum of our confusion was an inclement sentence; i was living life behind bars. a prisoner of regulations and limitations. a trick pony who was expected to impress an audience. that was what i felt. but it was the disdain of the crowd which took from me any spirit of showmanship. i felt ruled. controlled. undermined and mitigated by possession. underestimated yet overexpected. and so my performance was one of ambivalence.
and yet, i never lost my will, not to be right, but to find what was right, and cling to it. with all my might. and dispute any word to the contrary.
my mom never much defended me. the most she would usually do was tell both my father and me to “hush.” and in my defiance, if an altercation continued, she would tell me to stop. one of the many arguments she tried to quell was the one i had with my dad about alcohol. it was the biggest argument of all. i told him that alcohol was a depressant. he said i was wrong, but i stood my ground. i disputed his word. and i paid dearly. another time, he wasn’t content with me studying on my own for my Algebra test. instead, he demanded that HE “help” me with it. i told him that everything he was showing me about Algebra was wrong, according to my teacher. he turned red and showed his head veins, and exploded over me disputing his word. he ORDERED me to do the Algebra just as he instructed, because i was merely a kid and he was therefore much smarter. i went to school and failed my test. the only F i’d ever made.
he would often say things that seemed irrational, and i would point out his error. it didn’t matter, because i was going to be grounded anyway. at one point, i was grounded for six months straight.
he came upon a term for my insolence in correcting him. he called it “gettin’ technical.” when i was in violation of his most important rule, he would go from zero to flushed in about 3 seconds, and his helpless-looking eyes would burn a hole in me as he yelled “GETTIN’ TECHNICAL!” like an paranoid NBA referee. and for my crime, i could get a beating or a week’s grounding. years later, when i was twenty, i had the greatest epiphany of my life. at college, i learned that there was another term for “gettin’ technical.” it was called “logic.” and when i got a cell phone with the “technical” capacity, i kept the rules of logic on my phone. i wanted to be the technical, logical idiot he’d always accused me of being.
of course, in the end i would make it to the other side of misery, but as a young teen, i eventually sank in the mire of my punishments, which provided nothing but a swamp of depression. they offered no motivation. they lent to me no great lesson. many times, i found myself confined to my room, banging my head against the closet door, just hoping to knock myself out to escape the hell for a little while. i called a lady from our church and talked with her some, sneaking my late night phone use once my parents were in bed. i graduated from that to the suicide hotline. one night in the car on the way home from church, i grabbed the door handle. i was going to throw myself out of the car. i wasn’t sure what would happen, but i needed to do something to stop the life i was living. still, i never jumped. and i never ran away, although i wanted to so badly. i didn’t know how to run away; i didn’t know where i would go. after seeing a few sitcom episodes about teen suicide, i realized i could just talk to my mother and tell her how i was feeling; and just like on tv, there would be an intervention and the madness would end. so i picked the right time, and i said, “i want to kill myself. i want to commit suicide.” her response: “oh wade, grow up.” and that was that.
so much for my faith in Who’s the Boss and Growing Pains.
and so life went on, and my dad continued the groundings. then when i was fourteen, for some reason he changed gears. he decided that grounding was no longer appropriate, and my return to the belt was a better idea. i was about four inches taller than him, and he knew he could no longer hold my wrist and physically control me. so he had a new method: for any insubordination–disputing his word, etc.–i was forced to lie on my bed, facedown, with my arms spread out. flat. and then, as i lay still, with nowhere to run, no forward motion possible against the wall of my mattress, he would lash me with the belt, rising up with the wide leather strap and baring down onto me…one…two…three…my face in the bedspread…four…five…the sound of the buckle as he drew upward…six…nowhere for me to go…seven…i was a teenager caught in a violent degradation…eight…i never wanted to be here again…nine…i hoped it would stop…
then i was left in my shame. to pull the covers down and go to sleep. in the bed where i was just beaten.
it was hard to sleep.
but just as sure as the morning follows the night, as with every childhood or adolescent experience, time is mightier than the best–or worst–laid plans. eventually, my dad faded out of the picture. he worked full-time, and once he started his construction business on the side, he virtually disappeared from my everyday life, except when i was forced to work with him, which i hated. there continued to be episodes of turmoil, but comparatively, i went through my later high school years seeing him very little. he was never much of a family man; he always seemed more interested in helping other people outside of me and my sister and mother. in his mind, every act of community service placed one more jewel in his heavenly crown. in his absence, i was relieved to have freedom, a day to day existence without someone trying to control my every move. but in the meantime, my sister missed out on having much knowledge of our dad. when she got into trouble in high school, he told me it was my fault for not being a better brother.
all these years later, i still think about these things and many more. and the several times he’s told me as an adult that he doesn’t like me. and the fact that he says he should’ve been stricter, and that it is therefore his “fault” that i “turned out the way [i] did.”
i went to jail for two days last year –i’d forgotten i had a small, club-like weapon in my backpack, and i tried to board a plane. that may be a funny story to tell, if not for the fact that i missed my grandfather’s funeral because of it. from my communal cell, i called my family. my dad got on the phone and told me i was in jail because God was punishing me for not living a good enough life.
and what about my brain tumor? what did he tell me about that? he pointed out that nothing i’ve said against his words has ever mattered, because all this time, i’ve had a growth in my brain. so my thoughts were invalid. i hung up on him for that. and didn’t speak to him for two weeks. then i called home again. he picked up the phone, and instead of saying hello, he immediately told me that everything i’d ever said was nullified because i’d had a brain tumor. he literally said the exact same thing two weeks after the fact, which was the very reason i hadn’t spoken to him in two weeks to start with.
still, any catharsis of this writing shouldn’t be misconstrued as an intention toward vindication: i have no desire to prosecute anyone in the court of public prose, over the same moral frailty we all share. i feel no motive for exposure or incrimination; this is simply an account of my personal struggle, an internal challenge I have known. It is only a piece of my journey, one that has led me to this point; my words here are a brief and incomplete portrait of a handful of stops along the way, uneven and without just attention to the overall. to be fair, i must confess that my parents have helped me, as an adult, many times when i shouldn’t have needed help at all. they paid for most of my college and supported my pursuit of my dreams; and they’ve bailed me out when i had few other places to turn. Just this morning, my dad contacted me to see how I was doing, and he recently offered to come to california for my angiogram. These gestures haven’t gone unnoticed. regarding my experiences with my father, i only wish the thorns hadn’t so overwhelmed the rose. and for all his harsh treatment during my youth, i know that i can’t blame only him. i realize that my mother allowed his actions. nonetheless, what is done is done. to the best of my ability, i bear no grudge, only hesitance toward the wantonness found in that place where the past is as far from the present as the east from the west. perhaps i will make my way there.
in the meantime, the present is at least more important.
i never wanted to follow in my dad’s footsteps. but last year, he had health problems. and now seizures. and i may be headed down that same road.
but my path early on set my journey off right: i learned as a young child that i could be anything i wanted to be; and this, i’m still becoming. later as a young adolescent, my father found himself up against the monster he had created. a monster of self-assurance. the criticisms and punishments tortured me, but they never made me doubt myself. and now, at this moment, i believe i am sturdier for these things. i haven’t shed a tear over my medical issue. i guess the hard times prepared me. i guess my experiences made me resilient.
“wade, what do you think you did wrong tonight?”
—–“nothing. not one thing.”
“this hurts me more than it does you.”
—–“ultimately, you’re right.”
“grow up, wade.”
—–“i have, into the person writing this.”
oh, and the second belt he whipped me with? i took it from his closet when i left home. i figured i’d earned it. had it on during my five days in the hospital.
i guess the trials of my youth made me strong. maybe one day i’ll be thankful for them. …one day…