08042014 Abuse and Memories (Update)

I transferred this entry to this blog June 2012. I updated it a little in 2014. I’m never satisfied with this. This isn’t a “new” blog entry, just re-worked. I get a lot of feedback from it. I don’t have many posts that seem so overwhelmingly powerful or portray my childhood so explicitly. That’s not what my blog is all about. Think of this as the post that kept growing as I tried to express the anger and alcohol that are the hallmarks of my childhood memories. It’s very sloppy and disjointed.
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Years ago, a distant cousin in the family (who I will call Tom) asked me what right did I have to talk about another family member’s misbehavior, especially the things that “ought not to be talked about.” I asked him where he learned the difference between what should and could not be discussed. He laughed when he realized that he was about to say “from family.” I then pointed out that despite the idea that things shouldn’t be discussed, somehow, through some mysterious force, everyone seemed to know all the deep, dark secrets, just in differing amounts. While probably no one knew everything, everyone knew something. I then went on to say that the things that happened in my life or that were done to me were MY life, too and that perhaps people should stop and think about the things they say and do, or to make amends at the point in their lives when they realized that they might have went too far. Tom and I talked about dad’s legacy and how he and I had come to a point that dad would have been able to start a new relationship with me, given enough time – we just ran out of road before we could run the race, so to speak. Tom was surprised that I could talk openly about some of the meanness of my father and still laugh and want to hear stories about the hell-raising, fun-filled dad. I told him that I would have loved for dad to have had a carefree life or to have been able to come to terms with his own hateful way of drinking the world away. Mom and dad weren’t huggers and they didn’t express themselves in tender ways. Had they been merely distant instead of angry at times, that would have been at least a step toward normalcy. I told Tom that it seemed deceptive for the older generation to keep some of the secrets, because it kept us from knowing our parents and family fully, whether it be warts and all. I still feel that way.
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By way of preface, I don’t know what this story is supposed to be about. This is usually a sign of a bad or weak writer. I’m quite often contradictory in tone about my memories and never can adequately explain the way things were. As you know, I’ve written many times about how our memories can be convincingly deceptive. This tendency can be overwhelming if you have family who insist on distorting, erasing, mitigating, or rewriting one’s past. I have always called anyone who does this a “revisionist.”

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In my defense, I might get a detail wrong here or there, but the spirit of my writing is authentic. At times, I feel like I imagine the writer Pat Conroy might, using words to attempt an eloquent re-telling of how things were. Unlike Pat, though, the cauldron of mixed memories clogs up my writing ability. I can get the basic facts out there, but still fail to explain how you can still strive to love someone who had damaged you so badly. Life would have been focused much differently if someone compassionate had pulled me aside and insisted that the violence and abuse in my family wasn’t normal and that I could detach totally from it. And saying it over and over until even I believed it. Looking back at my life and at the lives of those who shared my childhood, I plainly see the footprint of the violence still at work in the things we do, how we interact with people – all the while hoping it’s a footprint rather than a road map.
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Another writer’s note: part of my instinct to write is to establish a baseline so that people can read my words and know that I had purposefully written them. There are so many revisionists loose in the world. As the generation before me ages and meets their maker, it is easier for me to understand why some people blossom later in life and start sharing. Not only have they seen enough of the world to know what passes for normal, but the heritage that once clouded their growth grows distant and stops clouding their identify so much. It is equally more comprehensible to me that so many people who didn’t have the home life they should have wait until later in life to expound on the details.The potential for backlash and misunderstanding is sometimes overwhelming. Time usually lets us start opening the curtain.

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It should also be noted that you shouldn’t take any one story or context as an indicator of everything about my life. Everyone has a story, usually a complex and detailed one. Individual stories tend to be more powerful than others, clouding the overall life being described.Just as it is not fair or accurate to describe my dad’s life as consisting of nothing except anger and alcohol, so too would it be unfair to excuse away my shortcomings by saying that I was a damaged kid with a terrible idea of what the world was supposed to be.

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If you disagree with anything I’m writing or question my motives, either forgive me or get your own soapbox. If you are being truthful, as I’m trying to be, no one should be harmed. Hopefully, you will be a better writer than me. Perfectionist is not a title that will ever be hoisted on me. One day, I will be at the mercy of future revisionists who will write whatever they wish, even if in disregard to the truth. It is the way of things. Someone once said that “all truths are born as heresies.”

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(“It is no accident that those who scream the loudest for you to speak only when you have something positive to say are usually the ones with the most interest in keeping you quiet.” -x)

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In the book “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy,” the entire planet Earth and all its history is described as “mostly harmless,” as if this would be an adequate recap of what we are. I would describe my youth around my parents as “frequently toxic.” They shouldn’t have been parents – not without a lot of help. Anyone who disagrees is either a revisionist toward the truth or unapologetic in their ignorance of what constitutes parenthood. Being able to state only that your kids survived your presence until adulthood is not a good definition of the expectations of having children. Like so many people, my parents brought with them their own individual demons and fed these demons a steady diet of alcohol, frustration and anger. Depending on the day, I think their upbringings had a varying degree of influence over how they were failing as adults.

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The top picture was taken after my family’s trailer burned at City View trailer park in Springdale. The fire supposedly was due to faulty wiring, which is definitely possible. (My mom had lived in many houses that have burned to the ground, for whatever reason.) The trailer, like most of our residences, would never have appeared on anyone’s list of desirable places to live. I would have been attending Southwest Junior High, 7th grade. We lived in Tontitown with my widowed “cousin” Leta. She would have actually been the widow of a paternal cousin, up the genetic chain a couple of notches. The area of Tontitown was between old 68 and the new 412. Back then, only old 68 existed. The “blue hole” swimming hole and dirt roads ruled the area back then.

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(Coincidentally, years later, Leta’s house burned to the ground, allegedly due to the wiring. Much of the wiring had been done by my dad when we worked on the house. Like so much of our lives, if you don’t know where the house once stood you would miss it. Almost all vestiges of it are gone, fenced closed, and graded up. Somehow this fact seems metaphorical to my childhood. Unless I go digging around in my memories, it is as if life has swallowed up and taken the events from the world.)

The above picture is Jimmy and a paternal uncle of ours learning the “Hambone” dance near the front porch. Note the lawn mower behind them, the fan in the window in lieu of central heat or air, firewood stacked on the end of the porch, as well as the expanses of forest all around the house.

This picture is of the same place, slightly to the left. Grandma Terry is one the right, the one not pretending to drink from the whiskey bottle. 
This is a picture of the house from the viewpoint of the dirt road; picture taken in 2006, long after it had been almost totally burned. It is hard to understand that I lived there 30+ years ago.

One of the reasons that I love pictures is that they can evoke a time long past, specifics half-forgotten. You can look at a picture as an outsider and notice people’s expressions. But pictures can also remind you where you’ve been and allow you to ignore the background shadows that should’ve taken over one’s life. Pictures don’t convey the malignancy often hidden in plain sight. As contradictory as it seems, I could be happy at times, or at least distracted. This place in Tontitown offered many distractions. I could roam the countryside without fear, shoot guns, chop down trees, explode a ton of fireworks, practice my french horn skills, or read in peace. My brother, cousin Jimmy and some of our friends at times had unbelievably great times out there in the middle of nowhere. It sometimes confuses people to believe that any fun could be had if abuse existed.(A comparison I would use is to imagine that you are at the dentist’s office, waiting. No one wants to be there, and the dread of the drill is always on your mind. But you can sit, waiting, and read a great book, have a great conversation, or watch a great video on your computer. The location is just a backdrop.)

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But this place also harbored a horrible little secret: it allowed privacy for some people in my family to behave viciously – to an extent otherwise not possible in closer neighborhoods. Even if your neighbors didn’t directly interfere in your business, in town you could expect that eventually someone would call the police or step in. In the countryside, all bets were off. You would think that your own family would be the safety valve to ensure things didn’t go too far – but you would be wrong.
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Not too far from where that picture was taken, in the same yard, I was hit so hard that I urinated blood for several days. No one knew how bad it actually was. I had been ordered to mow the lawn, using an old machine that was comprised mainly of old bolts and crossed fingers.Dad was an outstanding mechanic, yet hated to provide new machinery or work on the old stuff sufficiently to make it work properly. So we made do.
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I must have been mowing wrong. (Unlike my brother, I was not the most coordinated and strong kid.) “Wrong” to dad was anything that he decided, for whatever reason, was wrong. Being totally oblivious, I didn’t even know how angry he was. I was pushing the lawn mower, sweating and struggling. I heard an angry scream and from the corner of my eye I saw Dad holding something, something that was swinging toward me. A shocking, searing pain rain across my lower back, a few inches above my belt line. Dad had swung a wooden rake as if hitting a home run, hitting me without warning across the back. I immediately hit the ground in the dirt and grime, lawn mower still running. Breathing was almost impossible.
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I don’t know how long I writhed on the ground. I do know that dad spent part of that time giving me the distinct impression that I was going to get another dose of his medicine. After a while, I was able to get up, after dad had went back inside the house. Dad had threatened to kill me if I didn’t finish mowing the lawn. So, that’s what I did. About 30 minutes after getting hit across the kidneys with the rake, I felt like I was going to either urinate or throw up. I went over behind the shed and tried to pee. It was agony. I couldn’t do it. An hour later, I finally forced myself to pee. There was blood in it. I can’t describe how scared that made me, at that age, to see blood come out and to know that my dad was responsible. To get so angry that he could hit me, much less with a yard tool, and not worry about how he was doing it was proof that I might as well have been dead.(Many in my family would have told me “At least he didn’t hit you with the metal-tine part of the rake!” as if this somehow mitigated the brutality of it.)

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I peed red for a few days. It finally started to lessen. I didn’t know if that meant my kidneys were giving up, or if I was getting better. Moving around was agony, too.  I have always believed that my band director must have known what was going on at home. It is as if he was reluctant to say anything, lest action be required to be taken, which would in turn potentially result in more beatings. Other times, I’m certain that he didn’t have a clue. I do know that when our trailer burned at City View and brought us to live at Leta’s that he, the band director, worked hard to help us out. Thinking back on it now, I can’t believe that I didn’t confide in the band director. I knew that it would either ruin his career if he got involved or result in dad beating me to death.Now that mom is gone, I’d like to add that mom knew that dad had hit me as hard as he could with a rake. She was at work at the phone company when the rake incident happened. At first she didn’t believe me, or at least underestimate how hard dad had hit me with the rake. Afterwards she told me that it wasn’t any worse that anything else he’d ever done and that I should be more careful to not make him angry! She didn’t take me to the doctor. Despite being covered under great medical and dental insurance for most of my youth, mom didn’t take us to the doctor and dentist. I went 13 years without a dentist visit and only saw a doctor when something horrendous happened, such as when I died for a brief period as an infant, another time when I had 160+ stitches during an accident, had acid thrown in my eyes, etc. Again, it is not that mom didn’t have excellent insurance at SW Bell, but that mom and dad simply didn’t do those normal things that families do – including medical care.

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Take a look again at the picture. Look at me in the cutoff shorts, bare feet, cheap yellow sports jersey, uncut hair. Does it look like I deserved to be hit across the back with a rake? By a hung over adult male? Much less my father?  I do have to wonder how people can have kids after growing up in that type of hell. Many people question why it is so difficult to be able to whip one’s children: my dad is a partial explanation. Like most abusers, he always cast the justification onto the victim, even helpless, ignorant victims like I was. Even if I had been mowing “wrong” on purpose, no father should ever hit a child with such violence. Had my kidneys failed after he hit me so savagely or if I had died, he would have insisted that he hadn’t hit me very hard, or that I had made him so angry he couldn’t help it. This tendency to justify one’s anger using the unacceptable behavior of another family member as a justification is all too common in my family. It is as if some of us are so genetically damaged that we can’t see that violence is a stupid alternative to real living.As I got older, there were incidents such as this one where I fantasized about killing my dad. After you’ve seen a parent pistol-whip the other or be punched in the face until blood spray happens, it would be more surprising to think that the child would be able to avoid such fantasies.

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“When you get so demoralized that you have lost all hope of things being different, violence is often seen as the appropriate answer in the face of brutal violence.” -x

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Despite all the evidence, the wall of silence about abuse has to be maintained. The family (especially the paternal side) knew how bad Dad could be – but much of their belief in his capacity for violence was suspended, inexplicably. It is strange to look at dad’s history (violence, arrests, DWIs, alcoholism, prison) and wonder how people could argue that he was a good person. Several of the maternal family would have murdered my dad had they witnessed his meanness after a few incidents. Many of them, though, would have realized the danger to themselves if they tried to intervene. Some of them had grown up in the shadow of abuse, too. Likewise, “interfering” with family matters was a matter of much controversy, even if physical violence were involved.While trying to avoid being overly dramatic, it is total truth that on many occasions dad’s savagery well exceeded a point where someone should have been killed, whether it was one of his victims, him, or someone trying to intercede. Sometimes, I watch the family “revisionists” at work. Entire incidents are seemingly forgotten, circumstances changed so that we don’t all look like we were crazy, idiotic savages. A lot of details get expunged or modified. Sometimes I don’t trust my own memory, so powerful is the idea that I was somehow damaged beyond repair from having lived through it. But I take a hard eye toward revisionists. I can understand that each of them was living his or her life and might have even not known there was another way to live, or that they might have been torn with guilt at failing to intervene. There are a couple of people in particular who would respond very angrily to my words, as they paint an unflattering picture of at least some of my life with my parents. Some would attempt to shout me down, threaten me, or argue about how wrong I remember it. (What is that is often said in 12-step programs – denial is the first sign of illness?) As I’ve aged, I’ve learned over and over how people can compartmentalize their anger and aggression. Someone can be saintly at work or in public and yet be secretly beating their family like old rugs hung on a clothesline. It takes a lot of abuse for many people to “notice,” much less accurately gauge the damage being done in private.

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Sidenote: for any family member who would argue about any ONE incident in particular, I only ask this: Would it be fair to say that you remember and will admit to even one incident where dad almost killed someone? If the answer to my questions is “yes,” then it is logical to assume that my assertions of other similar incidents should be recognizable as truth.If you can recall one incident, can you then recall two? Dad was a violent man and it followed him to many places.

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Sidenote two: how many times can family members recall dad beating one of the kids, mom, or someone at a bar? How many times did he had a gun or other weapon in his hand, threatening actually or committing violence? Regardless of the excuse used to explain dad’s involvement, does it seem reasonable to expect this pattern of behavior in a normal person?

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There were several years where, in my own mind, a few family members were as guilty as dad for his savagery. I would like to think I wouldn’t be a coward like some of them were – but it probably is not true for me just as it wasn’t true for them.No one likes to realize that they have either condoned or ignored abuse that should have been stopped. Over many years, I have learned that the drive to rationalize looking the other way for abuse is a strong urge. Given enough time, many people and family members literally learn to forget their part in looking the other way. But I do know that I would never say something that I heard one of my aunts say after mom got a beating: “He doesn’t get violent that often.” (As if even a yearly beating was infrequent enough to ignore.) No matter how trivial my mention of something negative such as beatings or violence, sometimes family get very angry with me and launch a personal attack against me. Even if I were manufacturing stories for my own amusement, perhaps everyone should let the family’s collective legacy speak for itself? If I am the only one spouting nonsense, it should be apparent. Responding with angry denials about your opposing version of the truth tends of reinforce the things I’m bringing up.

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Even though it will seem as if this badly-written personal essay is attempting to be an indictment of my dad, it is not. Nothing I can write can change the truth. That the truth is ugly is not my responsibility. That I disclose it might be seen as an a attack, but exactly who am I attacking by writing from my viewpoint, telling stories, that most families would rather be forgotten? My dad was in prison in Indiana. He also was driving drunk when a cousin of mine was killed. He had multiple DWIs. He was arrested many times for, among other things, fighting and violence. He had affairs while married to mom.  (Even though it is a huge family secret, Dad also had an affair with the wife of the cousin who died while dad was driving drunk.) He spent money intended for food, clothing and shelter on cigarettes, whiskey or guns. He was an alcoholic. He beat me and he beat his wife. Those are not opinions – those are facts. Most of the time, I don’t look at them and get upset – after all, they are just facts. These facts don’t blacken my reputation or legacy – as I was an involuntary servant to them, not a willing participant.

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To tell someone that this abuse didn’t affect my ability to be normal is simply stupid. I was a messed-up kid. I wet the bed until I was almost 13. I started biting my fingernails and never stopped. I am  reluctant to drink and go outside, much less drive. It has taken every ounce of me to fight the horrible person that was planted in me when I was younger.And yes, I am placing part of the ugliness in my life directly at the feet of some of my family. Until I realized that there was another way to live, it was on them, not me. Once I got older, I stopped putting it off on them, as I knew I was infected with the anger of growing up that way and that it was up to me to get rid of it. I learned to own the abuse and not use it as a crutch. I’ve done some stupid, stupid things and I often ponder what I might have done better – or worse- had I emerged with a different sense of reality than had been beat into me.

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Had I to do it all over again, I would’ve ran to a counselor at school, to strangers, to the police. I should have went to my only version of “safe” in those days – to the Hignite trailer, and hidden myself until my family thought I was dead. I should have screamed until my dad either killed me or someone, somewhere made it stop. The code of silence for both alcoholism and abuse is very strong. There were times when one of us should have shot and killed my Dad. My story wasn’t special or even uncommon, as you probably know.In a great book or a well-executed movie, people describe the aura of violence. It is a real thing to me. Many times I entered the house, knowing that terrible violence was approaching.My grandpa Cook told me when I was young not to be afraid of the dark and that the only monsters loose at night were men. How true it turned out to be! Learning that one’s own family were themselves the monsters and that locks wouldn’t keep them at bay is a demoralizing lesson to learn.

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To be fair, my grandpa Cook was a legendary mean drinker when he was younger. I never knew that side of him. He was nothing except loving to me, albeit in a grouchy way common to men of that day. Even toward the end of Grandpa Cook’s drinking days, he always spent time with me and listened. He would talk to me as if I were someone who needed attention and someone worthy of his time. When dad was in prison in Indiana, I lived with my grandparents for a time. Those times and those couple of summers when I was a little older were the golden months and years of my youth. Nothing can touch or tarnish the feeling of belonging and being able to go to bed at night knowing that no violence was going to come into the house. My grandparents were poor but I didn’t know what poor meant. A trip to the store in Monroe might as well have been a trip to Disneyland for me. It is true that my world was small, but it was bigger than anything I could have hoped for. I had my first 500 cups of coffee with grandpa. It is what love felt like for me. All things that have happened since compare favorably or unfavorably to those years. Around my Grandpa Cook and Grandma Nellie, no one thought to scream at me or try to hit me. This was the case with all the Cook family. It is also part of the reason I never developed an affinity with the Terry side of the family like I did with the Cooks. The Terry side of the family was distant to me. They were also the ones who were responsible for my dad. At the Terrys, there was no concealment or protection. At the Cooks, violent stupidity was not welcomed or tolerated. While it might not have been welcomed at the Terrys, it certainly wasn’t talked about or condemned, at least not openly in front of me; it is a shame, too, because there were a couple of extraordinary family members on that side of the family. Maybe being young warped my sense of memory and compassion.

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By the time my Grandmother Terry died, it occurred to me that several members of my dad’s side of the family could have pulled me aside and talked to me about it. They never did. But a couple of people on the Cook side of the family did. It was a surprise revelation to look at it in that way.

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I don’t remember the details of how or when dad got out of prison. I do remember moving to a small house near downtown Brinkley, then to a place in Wheatley. It seemed to be a time of screaming and the mean presence of this man who was the opposite of my grandpa Cook. There was no relaxing around this person who had nothing good to say about anything or kind words or hugs for me.

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If my dad had lived longer, it is quite likely that his violence would have cooled and people could have known a different Bobby Dean. Unfortunately, that’s not how history played out. He didn’t have time to resurrect his chance for a more normal life, relationships with his wife and children or to acknowledge much of the carnage he created. That’s why I can love my grandpa Cook without reservation, even though I know he was a bastard when he was younger – it wasn’t part of my life. Had I known my dad from afar, I might have had the impression he was fun or a victim of his circumstances.But I didn’t know him from afar. I knew him, up close and personal. I am sure that given more time, dad would have become a different person and we would have had a tremendously different relationship. Life vetoed that chance, though.

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It is a challenge to look at older family members sometimes. They knew that abuse was going on. Mom routinely had bruises so dark that she looked purple and sometimes could barely walk upright. To know that family justified or explained it away in their minds is just exhausting to think about. To grow up having been beaten, threatened with a knife, been in the room while firearms were being shot in anger  – these are not typical childhood things. I can see that people with good lives find it hard to imagine. Relatives stood by while dad drove us from Northwest Arkansas all the way to Brinkley drunk, with us riding in the exposed bed of a pickup truck. I was in the back of dad’s truck on July 4th one year when he crashed it. Dad jumped out, drunk, taking the time to ask how his dog Duke was – not ask first about me. Family watched as dad beat me with a belt, the twisted remain of a piece of plywood, and even his boots. At least several dozen times, family members watched me being forced into vehicles with drunks.People can sugarcoat it, deny it, or insist on asking why it matters. History never matters if those who want to revise it get angry enough.
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Watching my family explain away my dad’s savagery with the excuse of alcohol taught me a lot about not only alcoholism, but the subtle way that abuse creeps into lives and hatches more abuse. The rake incident happened while dad wasn’t drinking. (He was very hungover.) I was hit many times by my dad when alcohol wasn’t a factor. When we lived by 4K farms in Tontitown, dad punched me without warning on the chin, which threw me backwards into the chimney. My offense? I had read one of his Louis Lamour book and left it out. But even if he had been drinking, drinking doesn’t suddenly make or allow you to decide to beat on your defenseless children or wife. It’s stupid beyond belief to even make the comparison. There were more than a few times when I know that family members knew just how bad it had been after beatings. Sometimes they were actually present and intervention was rare. They knew – and did mostly did nothing. That’s not the rational behavior of caring people. When we lived in Brinkley in 1976, dad beat me with a deflated inner tube in front of a lot of family members, during a fish fry directly in front of the highway. An uncle dropped by the next day. It was all he could do to not go find my dad and kill him when he saw the bloody welts in at least a dozen different places on my body.
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I wet the bed until I was almost 13. Wetting the bed sometimes resulted in another beating. The cycle self-perpetuated. I wasn’t a normal kid to begin with and all the hitting and bed-wetting made it worse. Once, when I lived in Springdale at City View, dad discovered that I had wet the bed. He hit me so hard on the top of the head 3-4 times that I couldn’t see from my right eye. I threw up several times from nausea. I didn’t know at the time how serious he had probably hurt me. I knew at an early age that the beatings would have not stopped regardless of the behavior. I came to realize that mom was as broken as dad. Dad had an abusive personality – one that didn’t allow for the victim to have any say in the perceived repercussions of his wrath. It was a terrible secret to go to school and not only smell like urine quite often, but to label yourself as “gross,” or “messed up” because you can’t stop wetting the bed and were ashamed of it.My embarrassment for bed-wetting also allowed me to later identify those who honestly cared about me. As I look back now, I don’t recall the people I would label as “good” in my life as having been punitive toward me for wetting the bed. There are no exceptions. My Grandma Cook should have been the most cruel about it, as it was a lot of work for her to clean up my mess, but she never was cross with me. Her back, legs, and arms had rough use in life and she shouldn’t have been in the position to wash after me. The people who I would define as malicious all whipped me for it – or shamed me. People who blame the child for long-term bed wetting are usually not good people.This is a belief I’ve carried into adulthood. I have one relative in particular who would cluck at me and admonish me when she would hear about me wetting the bed. She would use that passive-aggressive language and attitude toward me, basically accusing me of choosing to wet the bed. After a close relative died and we were in my hometown area, she was furious that I had wet the bed, even though it wasn’t at her house. She and mom were openly ridiculing me – until I told her that I had done it on purpose because I obviously needed to be almost killed by my dad for doing so. (Keep in mind that this wasn’t typical back talk from me.) Mom was furious and embarrassed, as I had broken the silence and talked about dad beating me in front of another relative. Mom’s solution? She beat me in the back, butt, face, and legs with a fly swatter. The other relative said nothing. When I told Grandma Cook, she went ballistic on mom. How did mom get her revenge? She waited until we were back home and told dad that I had back-talked her and told one of his relatives that dad beat me. Before I neglect to mention it, she also waited until he was in a mean-drunk kind of mood. Result? Another beating.

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Not drinking before bed didn’t help. Nothing helped. When I got older and discovered that 3 out of 4 kids who wet the bed inherited the tendency from a parent, it set off a series of insights into stupidity. Since it’s something that many people suffer from but rarely discuss, it feels like you are the only one wetting the bed. One thing that people forget in my case is that after I would get a beating for urinating in bed, I would suffer a night or two wherein I was terrified of sleeping. I would lie there, listening, afraid to sleep. It’s not something I talked about with people but I’m sure that my fogginess from lack of sleep had to be apparent. All the strategies that a family can try to help the person who is bed-wetting were ignored. My parents were insistent that fear and threats were the only options to try. Those were their tried-and-true weapons, which they used unceasingly. It sickens me when I recall the stories. There are dozens that I could share, some so bizarre that they border on unbelievable. My affliction was one my siblings didn’t share.

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Having moved away from City View trailer park also meant that I was away from my favorite friend in the entire world. Were it not for my friend  and his mom, there is a good chance things would have went a different direction. Despite my friend seeing a lot of the craziness, I was constantly glad that he had still missed a great deal of the evil that happened when he wasn’t around. I had secretly hoped many times that something would happen to both my parents so that I could live with my friend. I should not have shielded my friend from most of the abuse. I sometimes think of how life could have been had I told him or his mom even about 1/10th of the craziness. The Hignites were great people and I like to think they would have helped me. Moving away from them in the middle of Springdale isolated me to the point where I gave up on surviving my childhood a few times. I was convinced of my demise, certain that it would be at the hands of my parents, either through violence or drunk driving. More than once, I reached a point of absolute demoralization.Other than the Hignites, it was my involvement with band that gave me the only real access to the outside world, with normal people.

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I would have sacrificed anything to have never left my grandparents house to live with my mom and dad after he exited prison. Likewise, I would have given both my legs to have lived with the Hignites. More than once I had wished that Uncle Melvin and Aunt Wilma would have raised me. Aunt Marylou would have been a great mother and I have told her so, although she might have thought I was just ‘talking.’ Uncle Harold would have had to learn to line me out, but he would have been an excellent parent to me. Sometimes, I am convinced my early-life atheism is rooted in the vicious reality of life that served as my foundation when I was young. One aunt who liked giving away bibles more than once made it a point to tell me to not be telling tales on the family! Being ignorant and afraid, there were many times when I begged someone above to make the violence stop or to spring me away from the malignancy of hate and alcoholism that had my parents in a vise.
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The other picture is my dad, after what should have been a fatal accident. He rolled his truck into a deep gulley, totaling it, after driving home drunk.  This is while we were living at Leta’s, sometime around the rake incident. Dad had many, many drinking-and-driving accidents. His survival was statistically surprising.

As for why we moved from that place in Tontitown… (See picture below this paragraph. This was my “cousin” Leta, the person who owned the house in Tontitown.) Without all the details, Leta and Dad were having an affair. I caught them one night when I was the only one at home with them both, even though I had seem some suspicious behavior before, such as both of them going to the bathroom at the same time and things like that. I would like to say that Dad didn’t know that I knew and witnessed the affair. That would be untrue, as mom constantly threw it in his face and dad made me pay for it several times with beatings. After we had all lived at our next place over on the east side of Springdale a few nights, dad grabbed me and told me I had better learn to keep my “f-ing” mouth shut. Even though my french horn was school-owned, he took it and threw it outside, luckily still in  the case. I don’t remember whether he whipped me with a belt or a stick. It wasn’t my fault that Dad and Leta didn’t conceal their affair, nor was it my fault that mom enjoyed getting cruelly drunk and then throw the evidence in dad’s face. As for the place we lived after Leta’s house, it was a painfully small trailer over by Butterfield Coach Road. It is near where the new Don Tyson Parkway intersects. now. Although there were several times that the brutality was crazy there, the worst might have been the night my sibling was staying at a friend’s house down the road. Mom and dad came home drunk, after fighting at Uncle Buck’s. Mom pulled one of dad’s pistols on him and was threatening to kill him. Dad eventually grabbed the gun and hit mom in the face with it. He then threw her into the small bedroom near the living room and hit her repeatedly with the gun. After that, he was punching her in the back and the head, mom screaming and crying. I couldn’t believe that no one had called the police. The trailers there were all very small, badly constructed, and in close proximity. Everyone heard what had happened. For about an hour, I was on the fine edge between being totally frightened and losing all connection with reality.

 

Before my dad died, I mostly came to terms with all the things that had happened. Amazingly, he was sober when I did. I hadn’t forgotten any of it – just not giving hate the space to fester inside me. I had went to visit Brinkley in October of the year of his death. He died in late November that year. When I catalog the evil things he did I could easily let myself fall into the old habit of hate. He was just a violent man who lived wrong. Why carry his legacy around in my head? It is one of the most contradictory things to try love someone who was capable of so much anger and violence. Sometimes, I begin to hate myself for ever feeling anything for dad. It’s easy to judge other people  for putting up with the same type of abuse, isn’t it? The difference is that I wasn’t an adult and didn’t get to vote on my involvement.
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As a concession, it is VERY true that my dad sometimes did totally selfless acts to help people. Sometimes, these were extraordinary things that made major impacts on other lives. Each thing that dad did to help other people, sometimes strangers, gave me a little push toward believing that anyone was capable of redemption. But in admitting this, it doesn’t detract from the very real and long-term consequences of his violence and alcoholism. You can’t be both the assassin and the minister at a funeral. I would love to embellish my story and list dozens of great things my dad did. And there certainly are many, many acts of selflessness on his part, many of which I’ve probably never heard a hint of. I guess I’m trying to emphasize to anyone who would think otherwise that the stain of dad’s violent anger toward me was something that I learned how to get out of by nothing less than a miracle. I don’t know how much saintliness it would take to balance the scales of life for dad in my regard. I do know that for anyone who believes that we are the sum total of our acts weighed in the balance that my dad would have needed to live a couple of lifetimes in an attempt to negate the sheer hatred he pushed my life into.

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Writing this story, unlike just talking about it, adds an air of reality to it again.

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Other family members unfortunately are caught up in the cycle of violence. I have lost several family members to intense alcoholism. Many who are still living survive on a steady diet of anger and resentment. Most maintain the thick veil of silence except in the abstract, where they mistakenly believe it does not touch them personally. It is a powerful rationalization that allows you to do the same as was done to you without decomposing mentally. It is sad to think that I take solace in the fact that I didn’t pass along the hidden gene of murderous rage that possessed my dad. I know that both of my grandfathers were angry people, too. I’ve mentioned, too, that my maternal grandfather Willie Cook turned into a selfless, loving person – one against whom I measure many, many people. His earlier life was brutal as well. But I didn’t live any of that with him.

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The next picture is of “happy-drunk” dad. This version of dad could be the very fun, with unexpected zaniness and laughter. Had this been the only version of dad, his alcoholism would have been almost irrelevant, as crazy as it is to write those words. I have many crazy stories of his pranks and of his ability to have a good time. This version of my dad was the best of all possible worlds. For people who witnessed only this version, I am jealous of their ignorance.

 

The next 2 pictures are of my dad and Uncle Buck.

 

The following picture of my dad makes me sad if I look at it and consider what life must have been like in his own head. Either he was psychopathic or he was unable to control himself – he knew no other way to live. He could be one of the hardest workers on the planet. Had he worked half as hard at a normal life, his legacy, at least for me, wouldn’t be a life of violence. I do not have the words to express how wasteful much of his energy, anger and focus were. Dad knew how to do many, many jobs, some very well. Unfortunately for him, one of his lasting legacies is one of anger and alcohol. My mom recently looked at this picture and said “He looked like a hoodlum.” I can’t remember much about this picture other than dad was very drunk when it was taken and that it was generally a very violent period in my parents lives.

 

Dad and mom finally separated in 1985, after my brother joined the military. That time before their separation was an epic battle of alcohol and alcoholism. We had moved to Elm Springs, from Cottonwood Street on the south side of Springdale. By then, though, I was older and knew that I could escape. There were countless nights when I was certain that one of them was going to kill the other; my certainty was much greater at 18 than it ever had been. I came home, looking around the house at piles of broken furniture, televisions, and shattered glass more than once, expecting to see a leg or an arm poking out from underneath. One that thing that tempered dad’s violence during that time was his back pain. He was getting medication to help his back stop hurting. It didn’t mix well with alcohol – not that anything did. His back problems were almost crippling for a time. It is unimaginable to think back at the level of anger and violence that happened at that house, next to the Willis Shaw employee parking lot. As crazy as some of the earlier years had been, between May, 1985 and until he left Northwest Arkansas were an ongoing series of incredible fight scenes. Mom and dad both pointed guns at one another more than once. Then, without much real warning, dad was gone, returning to Brinkley. It seemed like very little time passed before mom decided to go to rehab in Fort Smith. I don’t think she would have went had the last year not been so brutal and inhuman. It was her best time, those months after rehab when she got a glimpse of what normal life might be like.But she again spiraled toward drinking and destructive behavior and moved to Brinkley, to be closer to dad. They both married other people after they divorced, but neither marriage satisfied them.

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Since I continue to forget to mention the theme of mom’s dual nature: when she wasn’t drinking and distracted by her own destructive nonsense, mom could be an interesting person. The longer she went without drinking, the more amiable and less hostile her personality would become. It is a rare memory for me to remember mom and having a good time when drinking was involved. Drinking altered her personality or perhaps unleashed the turmoil of her how she really viewed the world. I know that if I were to have to attempt a new life surrounded by people like mom when they drank that I would opt to run off a bridge with a concrete brick tied to my neck. To further worsen the situation, it was exceedingly rare for both mom and dad to be drinking and in a good mood. So long was their list of mutual angers and disappointments that one or the other seemed hellbent on worsening the situation with insults or stupid behavior.

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My family didn’t go on vacations, or do the expected family things. There weren’t Sunday drives, going to eat at restaurants, going to church, going to the movies, having family talks, walking or biking. None of that was a part of our life. Ever. The few exceptions that happened were always the result of being around my cousin Jimmy and his parents, Ardith and Buck. Mom and Dad would have excused this away, using their jobs as justification. The reality is, though, that they weren’t wired for family activity and discourse. A lot of their adult lives were punctuated by drinking and working.

 

 

Below are 2 pictures of mom and dad when they married for the second time the same year he died. (They married both times on Feb 12, 29 years apart.) Dad re-opened the same gas station he had owned in 1976 and was making a go of it. It was well-known and across from the Lutheran Church on highway 49. Granted, he was still a terrible, unpredictable alcoholic, but he was adapting. Had he not died, it would have been interesting to see what type of person dad would have morphed into. It was in October that same year that I visited dad, to see him running the gas station, to see how he was trying to live.

Mom and dad not too long before dad’s sudden death, living down the road from his sister, off Highway 49.
In this picture, mom and I are in Uncle Buck’s backyard. Mom had been drinking a lot, as you can probably tell.
In this picture, mom and I were at Grandma Nellie’s house in Brinkley. Mom hadn’t been drinking and it was in relatively calm and quiet part of her life.

These last 2 pictures were taken at my Uncle Buck’s, dad’s brother. Dad is holding a whiskey and coke in one. In the other, dad and mom are sitting in front of an “investment.” It is a commemorative whiskey bottle featuring Elvis. So many of the pictures we have of dad involve him drinking because my immediate family didn’t use cameras, so almost all the pictures were taken somewhere else. I can’t remember a time when mom had a camera and took our pictures. The record of our lives almost exclusively happened when we were at other family’s homes. This is doubly true for Uncle Buck’s. When we did go somewhere, alcohol was the social glue and activity for the occasion.

 

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