Monday, November 15, 2010

The Vapor of Vanishing Innocence -- Chapter 4

The little one who smiles and hides the pain
Lets tears fall when he plays out in the rain.
The innocence portrayed with winsome look
Was the part of him that someone selfish took.
The awakened now spends time just looking back
And moments focused only on his lack.
The autumn gray has claimed the barefoot son
Who sits and dreams of how he used to run.

Twelve hours elapsed from the time of my arrest to the time of my release. Twelve hours was long enough to relive a lifetime.  I was warily aware that in the bare room in which I sat on a metal bench and leaned against a concrete wall -- not hungry enough to eat the baloney sandwiches wheeled in on a big metal cart -- were men who would not be going home for quite some time. Some glared at their sock-clad feet in borderline shock; one cried and folded up into a ball, another babbled incoherently and kept hitting himself in the head, and several others walked in circles making jokes and reminiscing about their past visits to the county jail with the vibrant enthusiasm of returning students recounting "what I did this summer," sharing stories of prison guards, comparing rules of various facilities as if they were summer camps.

I re-lived each mili-second of my five-minute moment in the park; replayed every syllable of the conversation; reviewed each frame of every character's movements with my eyes closed as if someone else might see what I could see and respond with an unflattering critique. There were things I wanted to forget but could not and would not -- handcuffs in a holding van while being "processed," the trophy picture with the undercover officer standing at my side as if with a prized fish, the pink ticket with the charges, the reading of my rights, the questioning of whether I planned to hurt myself (had I not already?), the typhoid test, the sliding of my wallet, watch and ring into a plastic bag, fingerprinting, mug shots -- so I meticulously labored through with mental determination to convince myself I was not dreaming.
And I was not.

We refer to things as momentous because we view most major life-changing . . . life-ending . . . events as happening in just a moment, to us. An earthquake. A car careening off a bridge. A final breath. A look. A gesture. A touch. A rejection. A slamming door. A momentous word creating light. A momentous word plunging us into darkness. An arrest. The truth is, most "momentous" events  are not moments at all, but climaxes that unfold over time in plain sight of our refusal to observe. We seem surprised to find ourselves digging through debris which contains within it the signs of impending disaster.

Twelve hours . . .  from a
noon lunch in the park to a midnight walk from the county jail checkout that felt strangely similar to dropping off a key in a hotel lobby, complete with a cheery goodnight from the uniformed desk clerk.

Where would we go from there? We went home. The beginning of amomentous journey. The great unraveling.

When innocence is ravaged, it provides an opening for a rampage of rampant emotions. In my not-neededness -- now the victim of a remorseless pedophile -- I flailed about in anger, self-belittling wonder, embarrassed by my worthlessness, shamed by a longing to be wanted again, carrying an unfamiliar pain in the pit of my stomach, an odd aching in my chest, an awareness of unwelcome change. I busied myself with building walls; I would not allow myself to feel this pain again. I would . . . be good.

It was November of 1963, during the first cold days following the devastatingly short summer of being highly prized and summarily cast aside by Mr. Hooten, whose main scouting skill was in the way he staked out, groomed, gutted, consumed and discarded the remains of his prey. At least my father respected the abandoned enough to disappear down the highway; Mr. Hooten remained to parade his newer prize before me and I soon found reasons to miss movie night and camp-outs. The only knot-tying badge I would ever earn would be for the ones I wound tightly around my shattered heart.  I may have wanted to let someone untie them, but I was letting no one near enough to try.

Perhaps the most dangerous want of all is the want to be wanted again to the point where we will do whatever is necessary to avoid the stings of rejection. I could not have understood that at nine. In the normal moments of pre-adolescence, the residue of rejection was melding into a grip. There was no such thing as PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome) in those days. I was simply suffering from ALK (Angry Little Kid.) So sad, no dad. Who had ever even heard about pedophilia? Had I heard the word at all, I would have thought it was some improved version of a bicycle. Teachers at school were focused on teaching us to get under our desks and practice for a nuclear attack and swallow a sugar cube to escape polio, not how to avoid the bad guy in the bushes. The solution for internal pain was self-enforced silence, not the seeking of sympathy. Feeling smaller and smaller makes it easier and easier to hide . . . inside.

I remember November especially because we lived in
Denton, not far from Dallas, and President John F. Kennedy had just been killed there, resulting in our early dismissal from school by a teary-eyed teacher who explained nothing, but just told us to walk on home. My mother took us to my grandfather's house a few days later to watch the funeral play out over and over on his big black and white TV. John-John stood in his little coat as the hearse bearing his father passed by and he saluted . . . and I felt jealous because I knew the whole world loved John-John. So . . . I went outside and stood by the side of the road and felt the aloof cold loneliness of a grey November day where everyone is focused and intent on . . . someone else. Cynical and uncaring thoughts for a nine-year-old, but major historical events have a way of minimizing personal disasters. I shivered in the wind and somehow changed. Aloneness, oddly enough, was comforting and my jealousy for the little boy on the TV vanished like a vapor.

I went inside for homemade gingerbread and hot cocoa, played "Go Fish" with my sisters and moved on, as children do, carefully dragging invisible baggage along behind them.

My mother, a beautiful and engaging woman who learned slowly about the importance of judging character, now had a boyfriend. I had not considered that boyfriends are often just pre-stepfathers putting on a show, auditioning for acceptance. I thought of Michael as my mother probably did: curiously funny, oddly sophisticated, daringly different from my dad. Michael presented himself as a Dean Martin-Sammy Davis Jr. combo -- a mixture of high and low, friend and foe. And . . . he had money, or so it seemed. As summer came around again, Michael would rent a room at the Villa Capri, pool-side, and we would swim and dash into the air-conditioned room for candy and soft drinks, luxuries to children of a young divorcée who's ex had quickly lapsed into non-payment of child support. Michael bought blow-up floating toys for the pool and plied us with hamburgers. My "real dad," as I began to refer to him, spent his withering income on wine, cigarettes and an occasional bus ticket to visit his offspring.

I found myself slowly taken in by this suave stranger in his big bathrobe and dressy slippers, propped up in his motel bed with cigarettes and Black Crow whiskey, telling jokes like Johnny Carson, declaring himself a German Jew, though he had hailed from Oklahoma, claiming he had big money somewhere, all the while taking Polaroids of my sisters posing in bathing suits and Baby Doll pajamas and telling my mother she needed to sue my father for unpaid child support. It would not be long before she did, and my father returned to
Denton, not on a bus to see his kids, but in a squad car to be transported to the county jail. My older brother, who knew him better than I, would stand on the grounds outside the jail-house and throw cigarettes two stories up and through the bars to my dad, a strange bonding experience between father and son that Mike will never forget. I only thought that Dad was bad; he was in jail.

Meantime, Michael practiced his shrewd moves.  We often point fingers at people for being gullible, for being taken in, swallowing the bait . . . but the truth is that evil is so well-camouflaged that even the most discerning can find themselves swooning at attention that is not authentic, smiles that are practiced and compliments that are nothing more than a cluster of words designed to win an audience. My mother fell for Michael and we fell for the promise. I had a dad again.

The hamburger days ended abruptly, replaced with the "go to the store and get me some damn cigarettes" days. The bathrobe became the uniform of the day, day after day. The money somewhere became money no-where. The laughing man who had once tossed handfuls of quarters in the pool so we could dive and keep was now watering down ketchup to make it go farther and forcing my mother to cook cauldrons of lima beans and meatless spaghetti and freeze it in measured "TV dinners." The suave world traveler became the unemployed typewriter repairman. His Black Crow whiskey became his idol and the escape route from reality. His poker games replaced all entertainment; my mother became his bartender, personal maid, source of income and part-time nurse for the mystery ailments that would suddenly appear any time she dared to reflect her regrets at marrying him. He collapsed to the floor so many times, his eyes rolling back in his head, that my sisters and I eventually would only stand in the hall and giggle at his act.

"Eat it and like it," Michael would say as I sat in stoned silence before lima beans and ham, remembering the bountiful days of pinto beans and sauerkraut and weenies and cornbread . . . with my "real dad." Doors would slam and curses fly. Threats became as common as deep breaths, which we took every time we risked waking him from his whisky-induced, bathrobe-open near-comas as he sprawled in the living room in boxer shorts, snoring loudly, unkempt and uncaring. If we had dared to bring home friends, we might have been able to sell tickets. Stepfathers were not so common then, especially ones who ruled in near-naked kingly fashion from an ash-littered recliner, demanding chocolate-covered cherries and "damn cigarettes." Profanity defined his use of adjectives, whether for the weather . . . or for the hapless litter that trailed behind his new young wife.

My new role model: Michael, the self-proclaimed superior saint from somewhere special. Here to rescue me from my abandonment and my abuse with his vulgar put-downs, comparing me to his also-superior sons for whom he would clean up well on their occasional visits. Suddenly the hamburgers would return, ginger-ale would flow, swimming would resume, pants would pull up over the boxer shorts and shoes with laces would come out of the closet.  He would even laugh. Mike and I would be ejected from the Colonial bunk beds he had purchased to show us he cared, to the floor, so his sons could sleep in peace. I learned from Michael the full force of falseness, the power of a lie, even the effectiveness of a well-placed cry. He was the master of manipulation and could convince you of your worthlessness with a simple phrase: "Go get me some damn cigarettes."

My menagerie of male influence had expanded beyond the disappearing dad and the use-and-lose Mr. Hooten to the reduce and abuse Michael. Though he never touched me, he drained me of the remaining hope that boys have of finding a shadow in which to walk. And he even took away from me my brother, who, refusing to trek to the store for cigarettes -- perhaps remembering the days of throwing them to a better man -- climbed on a motorcycle and drove away at the age of about
14. In his rebellion, perhaps compelled by an immense hatred for a truly awful man, he somehow moved from uprooted to upright, spending a few years with grandparents before enlisting in the Marines and shipping out to Vietnam.

My mother's dream man, Michael, who had rescued her from the disappointment of my dad, was, in later years referred to by her as "the name we do not mention." She still won't.

Thankfully, it doesn't take much light for children to grow; the desire for life is strong even in strife. Those were days of Monopoly games, home-made skateboards, free-range roaming of ever-changing neighborhoods into which we would move to avoid the sheriff when the rent was too-far past-due. There were always new people, terrain shifting from trashy alleys to weeping-willow-bestowed grand backyards. There was adventure. The misery of our home-life made us, in some strange way, attractive to others; we were an oddity. Despite my vow to remain locked down inside, I found friends.

My stepfather was a follow-the-work type, as in when he would drink too much and lose a job in one town, he would follow his urge to start anew in a place where no one knew him. It follows that we followed him. We followed him to a hopeful and far-too-nice home in
Shawnee, Oklahoma where I would ride my skateboard with abandon down the steps of the administration building at Oklahoma Baptist University -- Old Baggy Underwear to us local boys -- until administrators would emerge to chase me and my friends away. In the afternoons after school, my friends and I would stand on the porch with brooms as guitars and sing Beatles songs while my sisters and their friends would swoon in the front yard paying tearful homage to our mop-top talents by tossing Sweet-Tarts to the stage. I know I had friends there, though I cannot remember their names or place their faces.

When I was about 10 years old, we left tornado country for the humid bayous of
Houston, where we moved into a concrete jungle . . . blocks and blocks of apartment buildings and parking lots, dotted occasionally with a convenience store or a dry cleaners or a liquor store or a Jewish deli. It was a fine place for little boys on banana-seat bicycles who liked to explore. I could race between the buildings and through the alleys and leave my feelings behind in our little apartment.

In Houston, I found friends like George who did not abandon me even on the day that my stepfather dragged his mattress to the front lawn of Houston's Riddlewood Apartments and sprawled in gaping boxer shorts to protest a broken air conditioner, yelling ethnic insults at Mrs. Weingarten, the manager of the building, despite, of course, his own unsubstantiated claim to Jewry. It would soon be moving time again.

Despite it all, it was a season of re-discovering summer and I did so with the gusto of a normal Gentile in a Jewish suburb. Buying chocolate covered ants at the Jewish deli in Houston and dumping them on the sidewalk because George told me they were still alive; sitting under the yellow neon lights of the strip center, fighting off dive-bomber june bugs as we ate orange sherbet ice cream cones outside Baskin-Robbins. It was the summer of my first kiss, to a girl whose name I can't remember, through the window screen of her family's apartment.  It was a season in which I almost found myself, but backed away and hid, postponing revelation for a better day.  Still, it was the season in which I found Christ.

Deb, my older sister, was entering her teen years.  During summer months when the pool was open, her friends from school would come to swim, though they dared not enter the apartment where Michael ruled. I remember the older boys would taunt me from the second-floor balcony as they prepared to jump into the pool, calling me names like "hairless little monkey," proud of the fuzz on their legs and chests and beneath their armpits. I did not know that all I needed to do was grow; I felt lessened by my skinny sleekness. I should have realized it was just their way to chase me away.

Repulsed by coming home from school to find my stepfather protesting in his boxers in front of our building, I fled on my bike, racing away to erase the indelible image of my stepfather in his underwear.  A few blocks from out building I turned a corner and saw something rare: trees. Like they had sneaked into the neighborhood, they closely guarded a thick green lot I had never noticed before, overgrown, crowded with trees and thick undergrowth, but with a thin meandering trail into its middle. I was 10; I took the trail. 

I hopped off my bike and walked it in with me, over the vines and into the cool darkness of this small forgotten piece of forest, a reminder of what this part of town had been before most of it was paved, a picture of what we all are before the layers of life suffocate the freedom in our souls. The further I walked into the lot, the less I could hear the traffic; the more I could erase the real world: my stepfather, the older boys in the neighborhood who liked to tease and threaten, the arguments at home, poker parties that played out till dawn, the broken air-conditioner and the still hot humid nights of Houston, too overbearing for the tiny apartment window that only opened a few inches.

In a clearing in the middle of the "quiet place," a bulldozer sat, its shovel aimed skyward, its tracks clogged with vines as if it were never going to move again. The trees around it had been cleared, probably by the bulldozer itself, and it sat alone beneath a hole in the sky, abandoned and forgotten, but powerful in its solitude. And very beckoning. My bulldozer.

Ten-year-olds love secrets, but most of the secrets I had at the time were bad. Some boys have dogs; others have buddies. I had the bulldozer. Every time feelings would invade my life, no matter the prompting, I would head for the clearing, park the bike against the machine's massive tracks, scale the cabin and climb into the upraised shovel. There I could cry, cry out, sing, shout or just lay quietly and watch afternoons fade to almost dark. This was a place Daddy had never been, a clearing in which Mr. Hooten would never camp and a resting place far removed from the repulsive Michael.   I told the bulldozer everything. Or someone . . . whoever it was that listened when 10-year-olds hurl their hearts at the opening in the sky.

Though I had many conversations with God beneath the opening in the sky, I did not officially become a Christian until I was 12. We still lived in
Houston. My visits to the bulldozer were less frequent as I learned to release the silent inanimate solidity of it for God Himself, who not only listens when we cry out, but responds. So I began to grow up and I tried to release the weight of the past. Still, even though I was a Christian, I carried some feelings deep inside, unwilling to be as honest with God as I had been with the bulldozer; hesitant to cry out or cry to a living God as opposed to a yellow, though very strong, hunk of metal. I was as trapped in my own clearing as the bulldozer was in "his."

In the darkest reliving of the memories of being abused, and during the quiet nights on my bunk bed wondering what my dad was doing and where he was, I felt clearly the presence of God, though I was clearly uncomfortable referring to Him as "Father," particularly with Michael snoring down the hall.  I would lie still and silent, letting my tears flow and my heart ponder the possibility of His goodness. The too-soon loss of innocence met the presence of hope in those
midnight moments of solitude away from the burning sun of reality. I sensed that, to Him, I was like everyone else, not shattered and shuttered, but whole and open.

But . . . there was this baggage. Invisible to everyone else, I was beginning to get a glimpse of it, feeling the weight, realizing the room it took to store it, but adjusting to the need to have it always with me. I did not know what it was, but I knew it was there. This awareness was . . . momentous . . . an acceptance that I was somehow moving through childhood, though innocence had ascended like a vapor, blending into the dark night sky. Like viewing the tail-lights of my father's car for the final time. Like feeling the weight of Mr. Hooten unwelcome upon me in a smothering tent. Like being sent to the store to service a sick man's addiction. Not moments at all, but life, to be replayed.

I have been asked if I was a happy child. In truth, I very often was. Happiness is one of those mysteries that plays out somehow around the edges of misery and weaves its way into memory. It tiptoed in and out as I picked my way through the minefield of emerging masculinity, unmindful I was composing my to-do-list of what-not-to-be.

Every time we moved, the baggage became greater and my care of it more determined. I would soon begin to unpack it.

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