As I entered Harps, I saw two men milling around without masks or their faces covered. Like most guys at the store, they seemed as if they’d never ventured into a grocery store before.
They looked exactly like you imagine they would. My path intersected a couple of times with them. The younger of the two, a man wearing a black stocking cap, seemed to be aware that his lack of a mask was drawing attention from passersby.
I pulled a plastic sheath of 5 masks from my left back pocket and opened it.
“Would you guys like a mask? No charge.” I stepped closer. I was wearing a mask and social distance didn’t seem to be a factor in their lives. Truth be told, my workplace is much more dangerous than the grocery store, even with people milling around without masks.
The younger guy in the stocking cap stepped and said, “Yeah, thanks!” As he took one from the sheath, it must have dawned on him that his friend didn’t want one.
“Don’t want one, don’t need one,” his older friend said as the other guy took one.
“Mark, you’ve always been a dick, haven’t you?” The younger man said it exactly as a friend would.
“Okay, give me a mask. ” He took one. “Can I have another to shove down my brother’s throat? He never shuts up.”
“You two are brothers? If you don’t mind me saying so, I don’t see the resemblance.” I wasn’t thinking this might sound rude coming out of my mouth.
“Thanks!” the younger man said and we all laughed, even as the older brother punched the younger man’s shoulder.
I handed the younger man the sheath with the other three masks in it.
When the story is good, nothing else exists outside of those pages. I love to read. Always have. Someone standing in the same room asking me a question might as well be a mile down the road asking it because I won’t hear the question. I can’thear the question.
A recent conversation with my cousin, who is a writer and avid reader, made me ask where or how he gained his love for the written word. It also prompted me to think where I gained mine. The answer in a word is Mama. Thoughts of her and reading bring memories from my childhood flooding in.
When I was very small, reading was a huge part of my day. Mama read to me as a way of both entertaining me and lulling me to sleep for a nap. Her tone was soothing. Its sound was like a soft blanket wrapping around me.
As I grew, Mama returned to work, and I stayed with a sitter while my brother and sister were in school. It reduced my reading time, but it didn’t eliminate it. Even when she was surely exhausted and hated the thought of it, my mother read an evening story to me.
Each night, supper was cooked and eaten, the dishes were washed, dried, and put away, and then it was storytime. It was my favorite time of the day. Storytime was like my own special dessert. The anticipation of it through supper and cleanup tasted sweeter than any cake or cookies possibly could.
The routine was the same each evening. I picked a book, and we settled onto the couch. She always sat near the end where the light from the floor lamp made it easier to see the print regardless of which book I chose. I sat to her right as close as possible. That proximity varied based on the time of year and the temperature inside our small house. Winter temps meant I could get as close as possible; summer temps meant there had to be space so we wouldn’t sweat and cause our skin to stick together. On the cooler evenings, when I smushed myself into her tightly, I could feel the vibration from her voice cause a soft rumble from her body to mine.
I tended to choose longer books because, no matter the length, one story was usually the limit. Laundry still had to be folded and put away, and everyone had to have baths before bedtime. With five people and one bathroom, that was quite a process to complete.
No matter how long it took her to read the story, it was never long enough for me. Occasionally, if I had picked the same book too many nights in a row, Mama would suggest a different book. I knew that meant she was tired of that story, so I would exchange the book grudgingly. The disappointment always fell away quickly though—as soon as the first word was read.
Immediately, I was “in” the story. Everyone and everything else around me disappeared, and I was walking with the characters in the book; feeling what they were feeling, seeing what they were seeing, smelling what they were smelling. All of their experiences became my own and were as real to me as the room I was sitting in.
That wasn’t the end of reading for the night though. One more treat was to come. After I was ready for bed, Mama or my sister would tuck me in, pick up the book Little Visits With God, and read a Bible story to me. After that, a quick prayer, and I was off to dreamland feeling safe and secure.
As I grew and learned to read on my own, Mama took me to the local library to pick out my own books. What a wonderful place! My first favorite moment was taking the first step inside the library door. It was like stepping into an entirely new world! The smell of books greeted me like the embrace of a favorite family member, and the spark of excitement that jolted and ran through me was like the joy of seeing your best friend at school after a long weekend.
Our library was, to me, one of the stateliest structures in town with its brick facade and three-story, white columns. You couldn’t tell from the outside, but from the front door, the library was down a flight of steps. Standing on the landing was like overlooking a magic land from a lush hill while fairies spun webs of glowing books.
As a teenager, I had a book in progress at all times. Books opened up worlds I didn’t know existed: places, people, ideas, facts, and so much more. They showed me a vast range of possibilities existed for my future outside the boundaries of the small town I was lucky enough to call home. Books even taught me simple lessons about myself. I feel you asking “like what?” One book, in particular, taught me that scary books really should be avoided altogether. An all-night-by-flashlight binge read of The Amityville Horror and a weeklong inability to sleep drove home the lesson books of that sort were, for me, best left on the library shelf. As a teenager, one book was even a source of tension between my mom and me. Mom, after noticing a Judy Blume book in my room and flipping through it, decided the story wasn’t “suitable” and threw it away without telling me. She then allowed me to search the house for several days and, only after I asked if she had seen it, did she inform me it was in the trash because it was unsuitable for me. I was furious but knew better than to argue, so I only told her with teenage sarcasm, “Thanks for letting me waste so much time looking for it.”
Not only was my mother the source of my love of books, she too was a voracious reader. Having a book in progress, for her, was like having the next breath of air ready to breathe. One time after she came to my bedroom telling me to help with supper, I asked why she didn’t call me from the kitchen. She replied she had done that three times already. Yet, she wasn’t irritated. I presumed she would think I had ignored her calls and questioned her. “Not at all,” she said and then told me a story of her own. When she was my age and engrossed in a book, she didn’t hear her own mother repeatedly calling for help from the kitchen. Suddenly, Mom was brought to reality by a handful of homemade biscuit dough whacking her in the head. From that point on, she chose different times—ones that didn’t interfere with chores—to read. From that experience, she knew I couldn’t hear her when I was reading, and I’m thankful for that realization. Premade biscuit dough in a can would have hurt a lot worse than that handmade dough did.
That love of books and the magic of libraries remain with me to this day. It is both a simple gift and a deep legacy handed to me by the person who loved me more than any person ever has or ever will.
Pete McGill bought the pair of boots in Arkadelphia in 2016, using money his grandfather gave him for his 16th birthday. Pete’s grandfather, who he called Popsie, gave him money every year. He wrapped it in aluminum foil. “Men don’t use envelopes,” he always explained. That year, Popsie gave him $600. “Pete, I know it is way more than I normally give, but you’re growing up. I love you. Spend it on something that lasts.” Popsie unexpectedly grabbed Pete and hugged him for a long moment. Popsie was one of the hardest-working men Pete had ever worked alongside.
A week later, Pete drove his dad’s pickup truck back from a tiny little town south of Plano, Texas. He didn’t have a driver’s license, but his dad’s hired man got arrested down there for getting into a fight at a bar. Pete took the bus to Plano and hitchhiked over to the truck to drive it back. His dad didn’t argue much with the plan. He knew that Pete was tired of pretending to go to high school. Pete missed school Thursday to get on the bus. He never went back to school.
On the drive back, Pete realized he couldn’t drive straight through to Caddo Valley, where his dad’s place was. He stopped near Gum Springs and slept with the windows down. No one bothered him. Not that he was concerned about being disturbed. No one bothered Pete. He’d inherited his dad’s eyes.
After eating at a small diner the next morning, he drove on. Because he rarely had the chance to go to Arkadelphia, he pulled into a small strip mall. Above the sign, a large boot loomed. Pete remembered that Popsie told him to spend the money on something that would endure. A good pair of boots might last for ten years. Twenty minutes later, Pete exited the store wearing a new pair of boots. He threw his old work shoes in the bed of the pickup as he drove away, whistling.
For almost four years, Pete wore those $100 boots. Last year, his dad became ill and had to retire. He gave Pete the family business and a new cowboy hat. People who saw Pete with the boots and hat invariably commented that he resembled Paul Newman in his prime.
Despite the pandemic caging people, Pete continued running his dad’s business. The unusually rainy weeks in May kept him driving with his windows only partially open. For Pete, he was living his best life. His dad usually did the administrative work, and his grandfather Popsie sometimes rode with him to all the properties. Regardless of what else might be going on, they ended up back at the house cooking on the grill and sharing stories.
On Friday, May 22nd, Pete’s dad called him and asked him to drive to Saltillo just south of Conway and pick up a deed for some property. Truthfully, Pete looked forward to the drive. It was raining again, and at times the sky looked vengefully down on him as he drove. Even though Popsie joked about him doing so, Pete installed satellite radio in his pickup. Music kept him preoccupied. He had a beautiful singing voice, a fact that seemed to embarrass him if someone mentioned it. In this case, he sang one of his favorite Flynnville Train songs. As Pete drove, he let the small roads give him his course as he forgot about his time and place. He had GPS on his phone, something he despised using.
Indeed, he often drove an hour needlessly. By meandering, he saw a lot of people and things he never would have. Like his dad and grandfather, he couldn’t understand the need to be in a hurry, just to get to the grave worn out and anxious.
As he neared a little creek cutting its way through Conway, he felt his cellphone vibrate against his leg. Pete answered, saying, “Hold on for a second.” He pulled in alongside the native stone edge of the bridge covering the creek. Though it was Friday, there was no traffic as the rain beat down.
Pete picked up the phone again and turned off the radio. His stomach lurched, and though he didn’t know how he knew, he knew that his world was about to turn hard to the left.
“Pete. Did you pull over?” It was his dad.
“Yes. What happened! Something bad has happened, hasn’t it?” Pete rarely lost control.
“I’m so sorry, Pete, but Popsie died a few minutes ago. He was sitting under the deck out back watching the rain and he nodded off.” His dad’s voice cracked and trailed off to a whisper. It was probably the hardest thing he ever told another human being.
“I’ll be home in an hour,” Pete told his dad and hung up.
Pete sat in the truck with his head bowed for several minutes. The rain beat on the roof of the truck as the emergency flashers clicked in Pete’s ears. Pete exited the truck and walked over to the rusting red-orange metal railing rising above the native stone and serving as a guardrail. He ignored the rain drenching him.
He left his left leg and pulled at his boot until it came off. He did the same for the other boot. He turned and stared at the overfilled creek rushing beneath the mimosa. How long he stood there and immobile went unnoticed.
Pete felt the boots get heavier in his hands as he stood there, resting them on the rusting railing. They were filling with water.
Pete flung both of the boots into the roaring creek.
“Thanks, Popsie. Thanks for everything.”
Several days later, a mother out for an evening walk with one of her sons spotted one of Pete’s boots lying on the gravel of the creek bed. She idly wondered how a single boot came to rest in that spot. She took a picture of it. Something about the solitary presence of the boot spoke to her, more so than the subsiding creek or the depth of the aromas of a May evening.
She went on her way, never knowing that the boots were an offering to one of the most loved grandfathers who ever walked the earth.
For Pete – and above all, for Popsie, who bequeathed his grandson with an appreciation of the things that last and ability to distinguish between what lasts and what endures.
The mother didn’t take a picture of a boot. She took a picture of a life, disguised in the way that so many stories are.
I’m not a fan of a quick recap or drive-by. I want three shotgun blasts to the thorax, using words, just to be sure. I’m obligated to kill the “be nice, you don’t know…” meme – and bury it under an avalanche of words.
A popular meme and motivational cliché challenge us to be nice to people because we don’t know what invisible battles they’re fighting. (Maybe their anger, mistreatment, and lashing out is motivated by something else.)
That’s true for literally everyone, each day – unless we’re surrounded by sociopaths and mean people. Most good people swallow reactions to misbehavior constantly, without comment or repayment. As an outsider, you don’t know how many times someone might have overlooked being treated rudely or mistreated. We only see the consequence and not the long hill of effort to be kind that preceded an outburst.
It’s reciprocal, though, that expectation of kindness or overlooking someone’s inexplicable mean behavior that affects you. You’re not logical if you extend the benefit of the doubt to one participant without also extending it to the other.
People secretly fighting invisible battles should stop blame-shifting honest reactions on the people who are unaware of the circumstances.
We are all jerks; luckily, we’re just jerks on differing schedules.
Reciprocate and assume that I might have a bad day, bad life, or a particular circumstance myself.
Be honest with me and I’ll probably tolerate you lighting my toes on fire.
Like all clichés and generalizations, it’s almost meaningless to ask people to assume that all misbehavior results from an unseen struggle. We’re all going to say and do stupid things, especially hurtful things that we might not have intended to be so harsh.
Most of us are around a few people who lack basic decency. They gaslight and lash out regularly, then use any of our honest reactions against us. They’re the worst. They prey and thrive on the drama.
I’m around two of the worst sociopaths I’ve ever met on a routine basis. They’re toxic, angry, and abusive. They are masters at manipulation. It’s exhausting and needless. They always have an excuse to pardon their horrendous behavior.
P.S. I know this post is potentially contradictory, accusatory, and perhaps upsetting. Maybe I’m having a bad day, though.
So do as the memes demand and give me a break.
You don’t know what’s going on in my life.
Whatever it is, though, it’s my responsibility to throttle my misbehavior, angry words, or discourteousness before asking you automatically to give me a pass. I expect the same from you. It works 99% of the time.
So, enough with the “Be nice, you never know” positivity memes. They’re vacuous and defy the complexity of human emotions and interaction.
Good people need not be told. Bad people don’t care. And sometimes, we can be both.
I needed a meme for myself, for obvious reasons. With a name like “X,” only weirdos expect me to play by the imaginary rules, much less be sane. The rest of y’all need to fry your bacon a little longer.
COVID has brought out the crazy in a lot of people.
I wrote the draft of this post years ago, precovid.
Years ago, I remember watching a “60 Minutes” segment and seeing a railroad car carry chemicals to one destination and then refill with apple juice, without being cleaned between fills. When I worked at a dairy, I was surprised to see that clumpy, black, clotted milk would be put in the holding tank to save money, because as long as the main tank passed inspection, it didn’t matter if someone shoveled manure into it. It’s true that pasteurization awaited the milk.
To frame it another way, though, you likely wouldn’t eat a bowl of ice cream if you knew it had 1% manure in it, no matter how safe it might be to eat.
I saw other things which were more troublesome while working in the poultry industry, which is plagued by food-borne illnesses and contaminants, even though they constantly assure us that every conceivable measure is being taken to ensure a safe food supply, even as they speed up processes, reduce costs and USDA inspectors, and reduce human intervention. If human beings are involved and profit is a primary consideration, it is no stretch to imagine all possible scenarios where corners might be cut. People inevitably cut corners, especially people who are pressured into working faster, with fewer people, and whose profit margin shrinks as they take the time to do their job more safely.
PSA: You’ve all seen the delivery drivers throw packages in and out of their trucks, across fences, or into swimming pools. If you haven’t witnessed it personally, the internet has probably shown you a few examples of packages being tossed like beanbags all through the delivery process. Even when they don’t throw or mishandle packages, they are constantly falling over, rolling, or upended during handling and transport.
I won’t mention any companies by name, of course, but some bring you clothes, electronics, food, and toys for your children. It’s convenient.
You don’t think twice about it, I’m sure.
Without being specific, a huge range of things is shipped by carriers. They can send diagnostic samples, clinical samples, blood, human tissue, and about a 1,000 other things you’ve never thought about. I’m surprised how many people assume that such things are segregated on other carriers or trucks. They are not. Also, it’s important that people know that the classification systems used to determine what can be shipped are a little dubious. Some items are recycled medical devices which are treated as highly infectious inside their point-of-use, yet are packaged and transported on the same trucks as your personal items.
The same drivers you see throwing packaged from across the yard are often the drivers transporting the things I’ve mentioned.
Whether they are hazardous or not is at times subject to opinion. Many times, no one knows what is inside the boxes. Even if they do know, speed demands that the packages be handled quickly, not carefully. The packaging is at the whim and mercy of anyone who took the time to ensure it was sealed properly or not. Anything in the distribution chain, however, is subject to the same treatment that you’ve watched on YouTube videos. You can Google the issue for yourself. You’ll be surprised at what can be sent on the same vehicles as your children’s toys, clothes, and food items.
It’s a small leap in logic to assume that these unmarked packages sometimes containing hazardous materials spill, going out onto your food packages, baby toys, or laptops. You then touch them without ever realizing that they have been exposed to waste products.
Many delivery and shipping companies use contractors. These contractors control their own processes, pay for their own vehicles, and so on while using the logos of the respective companies. Speed and efficiency are prized factors at every step of the delivery process. If you didn’t know, many drivers often resort to urinating in containers in their vehicles, no matter whose packages they are handling. Think about it the next time a driver hands you a scanner to sign your name.
Although I have not expressed my point very well, it can be summed up this way: if you receive anything shipped, you should assume that careless people handled the items and that anything you receive might have been contaminated accidentally or negligently at any point in the process. Further, reducing costs tends to drive what processes and training are in place to protect us.
Those videos of drivers throwing your packages are simply the visible consequence of our poorly-managed distribution system.
Do you want to know a sure sign you work somewhere where either the organization is terrible – or the boss is?
If they want to limit discussion to only your reaction, rather than the actions, words, or circumstances which triggered you, it’s a poor organization. Even people accused of murder have the opportunity to detail the timeline of events that preceded the alleged crime.
People are complex. Most people rarely flame out or over-react.
If your boss fails to listen, regardless of how ‘busy’ he or she is, it is likely the job or boss sucks. If it becomes a pattern, it is a certainty.
If your boss vocalizes the idea or emails any insinuation that your concerns are trivial, you work for a poor boss.
If someone uncharacteristically lashes out, you need to stop and examine what happened – as if human beings are involved. Forget the check-boxes and paint-by-the-numbers nonsense that HR insists that you use. Good HR representatives are compassionate, but it’s vital to remember that their primary responsibility is toward the company, which by definition is impersonal.
Good people don’t lash out or lose their sh#t unless they’ve been ignored.
In the last few years, most of us have witnessed the role of HR diminish from watchdog to whitewash. As organizations silo their areas, poor managers tend to become worse managers – and without anyone properly keeping an eye on them.
So many of us tolerate stress, mismanagement, misbehavior, or other cumulative craziness without a comment. Without warning, the valve blows and we react.
The boss rarely understands that we might be around a toxic employee or drama llama, or that employees are expected to do too much or tolerate behavior that would never be forgiven outside of work. Because businesses are running leaner or management is less well-trained than previously, the issues tend to flame out with greater consequence.
I see this becoming a worse problem as managers focus on metrics and impersonal considerations ahead of our humanity. As we emerge into a postcovid workforce, I predict that there’s going to be a great deal of backlash with this, even though many workers will continue to work from home.
When managers shift to priority management, especially during a crisis, people have fewer ways to vent their grievances. Despite the fact that most bosses grow to despise this part of their job, it’s actually more important than ever that they grin and bear it as they listen to their subordinates. Even if they don’t appreciate the alleged severity of the issues, failing to provide a release valve will hurt everyone. Pressure always leaks out of the organization. Whether it leaks out harmfully depends on the individual who is being ignored.
While it is simply my opinion, I think organizations need to stop leaning toward efficiency. Most people do their jobs well without micromanagement. The human component, the part needing attention, is suffering now more than ever. I see it in real-time.
I know the agony bosses suffer when they listen to a lot of complaining. It works precisely like a marriage, though. If you stop listening, you’re going to find your stuff piled in a flaming heap in the driveway.
Besides, in my experience, the terrible bosses who do this sort of thing are the worst when someone does the same to them. They will destroy the entire business if necessary if they are judged in a vacuum and without being afforded the opportunity to explain why they lost their sh#t.
I didn’t put this story on social media. I don’t even like this story. It gave me no satisfaction in writing it.
This story has been idling in my folder of unsavory family lore for a long time. Recently, a person close to me was dealing with someone infected with the inability to see the damage their behavior had scattered across their family’s landscape. This story came to mind and wouldn’t relent. Some of us contain the seeds of our undoing. Barring a miracle from stopping growth, these seeds blossom and choke the beauty out of our lives.
This story, in some ways, is a biographical sequel to my Tontitown post a few weeks ago. The truth is that in the last few weeks, I’ve endured the ignorance, anger, and consequences of another life being snuffed out due to alcoholism. Anger, of course, is its sidekick all too often.
People sometimes point out that I seem to be uncluttered by my youth’s insanity. I often reply, “It comes and goes, depending on what I’m dealing with.” Writing about it is a catharsis for me. It helps me clarify and unmix things that most people think are better off unsaid.
“Don’t live in the past,” some say. “Talking about it won’t change it.” All of which is true in its way. It’s also true, though, that because some of my family members never processed the damage they carried, the demon of alcoholism found a comfortable home in them. They’ve damaged their families. Like dragons, they lie upon their accumulated secrets and scorch anyone who tries to venture close.
On a recent Sunday morning, I found myself finally confronting someone in my family with a plea for them to get help again. They responded in a way that is almost a trademark: with righteous anger, denial, misdirection, and lies. Reasonable people simply don’t lash out in uncontrolled anger, especially when their alleged accuser is being painted as nuts. It’s amazing that angry addicts don’t recognize this; they can’t help themselves.
I don’t know how much longer they might live. I know, however, that they have lost any chance of a meaningful legacy. No matter what else they’ve accomplished, their addiction will stain everything. I cannot reconcile the sheer stupidity of such a wasted life. Though my life might be outwardly devoid of accomplishments and honorific merit, I know that I’ve mostly succeeded in keeping the infection of my family legacy in check. The fact that I can even say this infuriates those in my family who can’t say the same.
And so, now that we are past the preamble…
My family fled the outer fringe of Tontitown after my mother discovered that Dad had been having an affair with his cousin’s widow. We lived with her at the time, following a fire that burned our trailer in Springdale. We moved from Tontitown to a half-length trailer on what is now Don Tyson Parkway. It was a backwater little forgotten and desolate place with several small trailers on it back in the early 80s. Before Don Tyson, it was a narrow dirt road. I drive by the remnants of the place almost daily. The trailer was tiny, much smaller than an average trailer. It was an ugly place but one which served its function of crowding poor people with no great alternatives together. At the time, no one could believe that my parents had decided to stay together. They fought constantly, and the little trailer served as a ring in which to contain their anger.
The evening had started with Mom bitterly screaming at Dad about sleeping around and not working enough. I can no longer recall the name Mom mentioned, but Dad had slept with a barfly since we’d moved. I do remember that it was at a place on 71 and Highland Avenue. Weirdly, Dad had briefly bartended there when we lived at City View before our trailer burned. Dad rarely remained faithful.
Dad was already drinking. Mom was committing the cardinal sin of pressing his buttons. I don’t remember who broke the first glass or dish, but soon a succession of objects was being hurled and shattered. I went into my tiny room but realized that I could be trapped there. I spent a great deal of my youth shoeless and tried to avoid shards in the soles of my feet.
I went back into the living room and saw that Dad had dragged Mom into the bedroom at the far end of the trailer. I watched as my Dad lifted a pistol and slammed it against my Mom’s face. Blood splattered across the edge of the bed, across my dad’s shirt, and my Mom. Mom had probably grabbed one of the many guns in the house. Dad often kept one under the mattress and the bed. She fell face-first onto the cheap floor.
Dad continued to use the gun to bludgeon her. I stood near the narrow hallway of the half-sized trailer. After the second bloody smashing sound, I ran through the front door, across the driveway, and toward Butterfield Coach Road. As had happened so many times previously, I assumed that this would be the night when someone would be murdered. While I can’t always be sure of my memory, my brother was with the Thibodeaux family not too far away and my sister was undoubtedly concocting some sinister plan in parts unknown. I stayed gone for hours. When I returned, the front door was open and neither vehicle was outside. I cautiously went inside and saw that nothing had been cleaned. Furniture was overturned and glass shards greeted me. Upon entering, the two tiny bedrooms for the kids were to the right, while the living room, kitchen, bathroom, and master bedroom followed to the end. I walked the length of the trailer, certain that I’d find someone dead there.
I can’t remember the next day. A few days later, I was at my Uncle Buck’s house with my cousin Jimmy. Uncle Buck and Dad were drinking, and my uncle told Dad he had to go back home and work it out. Dad just lit a Camel cigarette and said nothing. Later, my Mom and Aunt Ardith arrived. After Mom spent a few minutes screaming at dad, he said it wouldn’t happen again. Mom promised to kill dad if he laid a finger on her again. It was an oft-repeated threat. Dad insisted that he wasn’t going to drink for a while and certainly not to get drunk. Left unsaid was the idea that alcohol was to blame for the dark violence. My cousin Jimmy said what I was thinking: “One of them should kill the other one and get it over with.”
A few days later, Dad came home at a reasonable hour and ate his pan-prepared slab of meat. Mom often spent a great portion of her paycheck buying horrid pieces of meat for Dad to eat. She’d cook them in a cast-iron skillet or pan. I sat at the table, waiting for the coda of the other night’s savagery. Mom had bruises and cuts on her head, neck, shoulders, arms, and places unseen. I knew that her ribs were either broken or cracked. How Mom worked as a telephone operator all day without being able to take a full breath was a mystery. Given that she averaged six packs a day, maybe it wasn’t a surprise.
Dad kept looking at my mom, trying to make a connection. “I’m sorry,” he said, over and over. “You shouldn’t mouth off like that. My drinking isn’t hurting anyone.” Dad kept murmuring to mom. “You know I’m sorry, don’t you, son,” he asked me. “Yes sir,” I told him, unconcerned with the lie in the face of unknown consequences. I would have shot him in the face at that moment if I had a gun in my hand. I knew that he would respond with righteous anger soon enough. It was apparent he was not sorry and that he didn’t believe he had done anything wrong. His entire life stretched behind him; regret for his acts of violence and alcoholism seldom seemed genuine. He had killed someone and not altered his behavior. He’d beaten all of us with fists, bottles, and boots. Like most alcoholics, he also expected us to forgive him simply because he demanded it.
Friday, I came home and played my French Horn for an hour and read “The Lion, Witch, and The Wardrobe,” one of the C.S. Lewis books that kept me company. I don’t remember where my brother and sister were. Around 8, I heard screaming outside, followed by the familiar sound of car doors slamming. I jumped up and hit the on/off button of the small t.v. we had. As the front door opened, I heard another scream, this one no longer a test. Mom was screaming murder. Dad grabbed her by her hair and slammed her face into the metal door jamb. Blood squirted across the room. Dad kicked mom into the living room and then kept kicking her in the face, side, and legs.
“Don’t ever make me apologize again, you #$%$^ing @#$%! You’re the reason my life is shit!” Dad continued to scream similar obscenities as mom laid on the floor, covering her head and sobbing. “Help me,” mom yelled at me as if I could pull the gun from under the couch and shoot my Dad. The thought had crossed my mind several times. There were at least five loaded weapons under the sofa where I was.
He turned to me. “As for you, you fat fucking piece of shit, don’t you move.”
I sat on the couch. Dad opened the lower cabinet and pulled out a bottle of some lesser brand of whiskey. He opened it and drank at least 1/5 of the bottle without stopping.
Dad came back the short distance to the horrid living room and sat on mom’s back. He pulled her hair and lifted her head backward and continued punching her head. I was no more than three feet away. “I’m not sorry, you ^&*$%. I don’t have a drinking problem.”
He let her head hit the floor with a thud. Blood was on the floor, my Dad, and across the tops of my cheap K-Mart shoes. Dad got up and grabbed my French Horn in its case and walked over to the front door and threw it out into the night. He took my school library book and tore it in half and threw the pieces on me. As he threw the book on me, I peed myself. He went to take another drink of whiskey, and as he did so, I stood up and tried to gauge how to get outside. I knew that I was going to get a beating. Dad walked over, and instead of punching me, he kicked me with the bottom of his boot, knocking the air out of me and propelling me through the front door. I missed the steps entirely and hit the ground. Without hesitation, I ignored the pain and stumbled off into the dark. Dad stood in the doorway, holding his bottle of whiskey, calling out an obscenity toward me in the night.
Mom left him for a few days. She returned, of course.
A few weeks after that, Dad came home and found me playing my French Horn. It infuriated him that Mom wasn’t there. He wasn’t even drinking that night, not until after. Though I stopped playing as soon as I heard the rumble of the truck outside, Dad came inside the trailer and grabbed my instrument. Thankfully, he didn’t bend it. Instead, he held my hand on the top of the kitchen table and told me to keep it there. I thought he was going to get a knife and do the infamous fingertip jump trick with a knife. Surprising me, he swung a bottle of whiskey down on my middle and second finger. The only reason my fingers didn’t get broken was that his aim was off enough not to hit me directly. It was terrifying and painful. “I don’t want to hear you playing this faggot shit in my house! You hear me, boy?” The next time I was at Uncle Buck’s, I told him that Dad had tried to break my hand. He often asked me how band was going and if I was learning music. He was an accomplished musician himself and often tried to get me to switch to bass and guitar. Uncle Buck was livid. “Bobby Dean, if you ever do that again, I’ll see to it that the same gets done to you.” Dad just laughed. I wasn’t allowed to spend the night there that night. Even though Dad was drunk, he drove back home. He stopped near Tyson Elementary and grabbed me out of the bed of the truck and hit me until my head was ringing. “Don’t ever tell Buck anything again,” he shouted as he beat me. As I tried to climb into the back of the bed of the pickup truck, Dad punched me as hard as he could in the back. I felt that punch for weeks.
(The demand for secrecy is one of the surest and sickest signs of pathology when dealing with violent addicts.)
While Dad’s beatings were violent while he was drinking, I suffered worse during those times when he wasn’t drinking. I think those times more truly reflected the bottomlessness of his anger toward me and regarding his own life. Much of his adult life was preoccupied with his next drink. His drinking resulted in someone’s death, a death for which he was never held accountable.
Violence and anger are not the results of addiction; they are precursors that accompany its growth. They are symbiotic. They require that those around the person with the addiction be partners in the aggression.
Looking at this post in my draft folder, I forgot that I had named it “Third Grade Marijuana.” That name paints an entirely different impression than the story underneath it.
I’m going to tell a truncated version of this story. The full version contained a couple of names and where I think the barn was located. I spent quite a bit of time going through property records and digging through the lists of people with influence and authority in the area.
I was in 3rd grade. My family lived in the Brinkley area again, for a year, so that my Dad could run the gas station on Highway 49 a few miles from Brinkley. I was in the bed of Dad’s truck with Duke, one of a long line of German Shepherds with the same name. We drove for miles. Dad turned off the main highway and then drove a series of increasingly narrow dirt roads. The last one was long and straight and ended in front of an unusually bright barn. As we neared, the large doors opened and Dad drove directly inside, which surprised me. Around the perimeter were large bags of hay. It smelled like silage or something pungent. I had been given orders to stay in the bed of the pickup truck. It wasn’t until later than I realized that Dad took me to a way station of sorts for marijuana. The barn was accessible only by one road. Deep irrigation ditches rimmed the entire arc of the farmland.
I didn’t stay in the bed of the truck. Someone offererd me a bottle of Pepsi from a machine along the wall.
Despite what people might say, this is a true story. Because the gas station in Rich is Monroe County, but close to a couple of other counties, I can’t be certain we stayed in Monroe County. I don’t know why we went to the holding barn in the middle of nowhere. I don’t remember if Dad took anything. I mainly remember him to talking to several people. All of them were laughing and talking loudly. It wasn’t menacing at all. Dad told me many years later that no one was worried because things have always been done that way.
Years later, it surprised me to know that Mom and Dad had marijuana in the house. (Or trailer, I should say.) I was oblivious to it before. They were lucky I was addicted to grape Bubble Yum and didn’t have an interest in pot. I would have had the entire school baked otherwise.
Note: Precovid, I was waiting on someone to get back to me on a particularly grim allegation. They lost their nerve. This isn’t a fun post. It’s just commentary I had to significantly pare down to avoid being sued by the organization involved in the allegation. Whatever we hear on the news, people talk and tell their stories.
For whatever reason, I’ve been reading a lot lately about abuse and abuse of authority or position. I know a couple of incredible stories involving people locally. Both are quite simply shocking and fascinating. Those stories aren’t mine to tell. Even though it might surprise some of my acquaintances, I sometimes get to hear accounts of things that you’ll never see on social media. I’m inclined to write about such things. For every incident of abuse or rape, many more go unreported.
A friend sent me a link to one of the databases identifying the “credibly accused” clergy of the Catholic church. We’ve since learned that a huge number of clergy simply had their names omitted from the list. A few thousand of those credibly accused also continue to live normal lives, in all manner of occupations, without being required to get help, register as a sex offender, or comply with any of the other restrictions placed on people in the general public who’ve committed the crime of abuse.
The topic swirls around me periodically due to books, movies, or stories that intermittently surface about the church. There’s always another bombshell, another revelation, in part because a group of old men thinks that secrecy will quell the truth. It is astonishing to me that those in charge of a church would ever seek to silence the truth, especially a truth which reveals that the institution has a serious problem. I keep waiting for people to stand up and say “Enough!” It’s not disloyal to your church to demand accountability. It’s disloyal to fellow humans to fail to do so.
From there, I opened the box of curiosity that led me to other cases locally. I have an inside view of a couple of them. What we’re told publicly is seldom most of the story. So many victims fail to come forward. Those who do are pitted against a variety of obstacles that impede and shame them, especially if the abusers are backed by organizations or have wealth to subvert the legal system to avoid accountability. A local case here wherein a professional abused his clients drove home to me that no amount of evidence and testimony will get someone convicted if they have lawyers to stymy the process.
Another friend reminded me of Priest Joseph Correnti, who called Tontitown’s St. Joseph home from 1995 to 2002.
He admitted to abusing children and then committed suicide the next day.
His actions weren’t revealed publicly until years later, after statues and places of meditation were created in his honor. A couple of victims came forward, one of them to sue. As well he should; the church participated in a scheme to protect and conceal the worst among us.
“It just doesn’t seem like he would have hurt somebody” are the words from one parishioner, upon hearing the revelations about Correnti. Those words echo in my ears. Like so many other Northwest Arkansas professionals, whether they be clergy, dentists, doctors, lawyers, police, or teachers, it’s important to remember that these predators do not have in fact wear a headband with the word “Danger” on their foreheads. I mean no harm toward the parishioner, who was surprised by the priest’s abuse of minors. A good head always strives to see the best in people.
I am surprised, though, that people still say they are surprised by abuse with a straight face.
When the evidence is presented, it’s part of our duty as adults to attempt to examine it.
If you understand that 1 in 25 priests was accused of abuse, it would stand to reason that you would, in fact, NOT be shocked that one of those is hiding in plain sight in your congregation. Those who abuse are precisely the people you trust; anyone and any occupation can be guilty.
If you have any experience with human nature, you know that monsters hide behind smiles, charity, and opportunity. Just because someone was an angel to you does not mean that they are doing some serious perverse things in secret. As I’ve written about before, a lot of friends have shared their stories of abuse with me, whether it was sexual, emotional, or physical. Many of them were put in the position of hating or accusing people who seemed to have lived lives of morality and respectability. Even though I have examples other than my dad, I want to scream when people find it hard to believe that he committed armed robbery, killed someone, beat his family, and so on. I’ve since learned other things about him that don’t rehabilitate his reputation.
People you knew growing up were abused. People you may know are guilty of abusing others. Given that I know several people who were abused when they were younger, I can say with certainty that a lot of predators live(d) in Northwest Arkansas. Most of them, even if accused, are walking around freely among us.
There are a lot more clergy guilty of abuse – and a lot more victims that we’ll never hear about. The victims of this abuse are listening to us as we bicker and argue about the issue, much in the same way that women who’ve been abused or assaulted sit in silence as their friends and relatives say some spectacularly ill-advised things about the subject.
It’s not anti-Catholic to discuss priest abuse. It is, however, unreasonable to fail to address this sort of thing aggressively. If clergy are abusing people, it’s on all of us to report them. What particular religion, position, or church is involved is irrelevant.
One of our greatest tools to combat predators is to stop the ongoing nonsense of secrecy. If a pastor, therapist, or priest is involved, feed him to the criminal justice system, independently of whether he gets help. Stop focusing on controlling publicity. Such secrecy damages the entire organization’s credibility.
The reason I know that there’s still a huge problem, aside from the statistics, is that when I bring this issue up, I get a lot of anger from those who are members of the organizations. This signals that the shield of secrecy is still very much at play. Until people demand accountability from their church, the church won’t address the issue completely. The cycle continues.
One of our most adult realizations is that anyone can misbehave no matter what organization they belong to. We should embrace the possibility that their misbehavior does not necessarily reflect on the entire organization. Sometimes, it does, especially when the organization or its members align to conceal the problem or defend those who have no grounds for defense.
The church cannot reach a minimum level of trust until it trusts everyone with the full accounting of what’s happened in the past.
Every human system is going to have humans who abuse it. It is no shame to oust those abusers publicly. Don’t defend them or the organization that continues to fail the people who are abused. There is no defense.
It isn’t a Catholic problem. It’s a human problem, one we should discuss.
We hear so much about the Catholic church precisely because of its size, reach, and influence.
We have to stop allowing people to resist open discussion when cases arise.