I want to start this post by saying that what you’re about to read is going to be somewhat heavy, but it is neither an attempt at gaining sympathy nor an over dramatized account of events in my childhood. I’m simply recounting some things that happened to me so that you can maybe get a bit of insight about a few of the things I’ve experienced to provide me with the outlook on life that I have now. From what I’ve written so far, it’s most likely going to be at least a two-parter. As always, I welcome your comments and advice on my writing.
When I was about twelve years old, I stood in front of the mirror in my bedroom and made a promise to myself. What I promised was that I wouldn’t become like them. By “them,” I meant people who cause pain, who intentionally hurt others and who generally get a kick out of being abusive toward those who are helpless to defend themselves. I had pretty good reason to make this promise to myself. My mother, as wonderful a woman as she is, had a stretch of bad luck when it came to choosing men. When I was about 4, she married an ex-Marine named Ron. He was a vicious man, and meted out harsh punishment to anyone around him who didn’t immediately do his bidding or who neglected to follow his rules to the letter. When I say “harsh punishment,” allow me to elucidate.
When I was about six, part of my chores was to empty all of the garbage cans and ashtrays in the house. One evening, as I was making my rounds, I needed to get to the garbage can under Ron’s desk. Ron was at his HAM radio, as he often was during the evenings, chain smoking and drinking. In his own special way, Ron told me that he was busy and to come back later by swinging his slab-of-beef backhand into my chest, knocking me backward across the room. I took the hint, picked myself up and continued my work in the other rooms of the house. My 8:00 bedtime came and I hit the sack before Ron finished up on the radio. Late that night, I was awakened in the wee hours by being physically dragged off my bunk – you got it, the top one – and through the house until being flung under Ron’s desk. I had broken the rules by not emptying the trashcan. My punishment for this heinous crime was being grounded to my bed for an entire day, then to my room for a week. I was also forced to write something like “I will empty the garbage cans when I am told” a thousand times. Yes, a thousand. At the end of the week, Ron decided it would be great fun to make me pack my clothes in a suitcase and tell me that I was being sent to military school. He kept up the joke right to the front door, then laughed at me. Good times, good times. This is the same guy who, at my seventh birthday party and with a large group of friends and family looking on, presented me with a wrapped gift that turned out to be a jumbo can of ALPO. For those of you who are younger or never had pets, that’s a brand of dog food. I could go on and on with this kind of story, like the time he threatened to cut holes in my water wings when I was learning how to swim or when he knocked me off the stool because I wanted to cut up my own pancakes.
The next stepfather I had was Mike. While not physically abusive, he was nevertheless a mean man whose favorite nickname for me was “Stupid.” For a time, he even had me wondering if there was something wrong with me, and the people who told me that I was smart were just trying to make me feel better. He took great care to criticize every single thing I did, making sure that I didn’t miss a syllable of the insults hurled my way. Retard, moron, idiot, dumbass, and plenty of other less pleasant epithets were hurled at me on a regular basis. It was after one of these friendly exchanges that I found myself in my room, looking at myself in the mirror, making that promise to myself.
I promised that I wouldn’t be like them, like the people who hurt others just for the fun of it or to feel better about themselves. At school, I became the guy who befriended the outcasts, the kids who had no friends or who were picked on or who didn’t have the money to buy designer clothes (I didn’t, either). I found myself standing up against bullies for kids I didn’t even know. Fortunately, bullies tend to be all talk, and I never got my face pushed in for my efforts. But I had had enough of seeing others victimized at the hands of the petty and the mean, and I decided that for the rest of my life, I would do everything I could to make sure that no one I knew was treated like that, at least not by me.
I’ve tried to keep that promise over the years. I suppose that only my obituary will say whether I was truly able to. In the next post or two, I’m going to explore how this promise made so long ago has shaped my outlook on life, and how the ups and downs of life had impacted this mission for the positive and the negative. I’ll try to be as objective as one can be. This is as much a learning experience for me as it is for the reader, I can assure you. There are times when I don’t really know how I feel or what I think about something until it’s out on the page. Maybe your insight into me will be as fresh as my own. Here’s hoping that I can actually gain some, and here’s hoping doubly that I can maybe help someone else get a little, too.