Once again, having pictures of my house during the stages of construction saved me a lot of heartaches today. If you own a Rausch-Coleman home, these pictures can quite literally save your life. And also a lot of time, if that sort of thing is important to you.
The other morning, my wife texted me to tell me the cheap wire shelf in the laundry room had broken free from its mooring on the right side. When I got home, I remembered that not only was the shelf cheap, but only one undersupport was installed for the entire length. Per the manufacturer, 3 were recommended for that length. When one of the people in charge came to visit me to address some major concerns that weren’t addressed, I mentioned this to him. “We take that sort of thing very seriously.” They took it so seriously that houses built after mine had the same horrible wire shelving – and insufficient supports on their shelving too.
I couldn’t find the screws that attached. There’s a reason for that!
Before starting a massive overhaul, which it needs, I opted to fix the loose end. I bought toggle bolts of varying sizes. I climbed up unsafely on a small unstable stool and pushed my screwdriver through. It was solid behind both holes, which puzzled me.
I took out my cutters and clipped off the two plastic protuberances, expecting a lot of resistance from the screws or broken screws inside. Surprisingly, they cut easily. Still no screws.
Just as I was about to screw a replacement through to push through the toggle bolt, I had a flash of caution.
I walked around and exited to the garage and confirmed my suspicion.
I came into the office and found my picture file from 2015, the one containing a couple of hundred pictures from various stages of the house being built. By the way, we didn’t get permission to do this. By the second visit to view the progress, I decided to do it. I wish I would have caught them doing the groundwork and pipes, too, because we had some strange issues with that, as I wrote about before. One of our delivery drives discovered the sinkhole in the front yard by running directly into it. I imagine this dampened his urge to shortcut through people’s yards for a while. Especially Rausch Coleman homes.
Behind that wall was the main electrical panel for the house.
Worse yet? The installer didn’t use screws at all in the connector for the wire frame to sit in. He made holes about 1/8″ of an inch deep with a screwdriver and just pushed the small protuberances into those tiny holes. Nothing was holding the connector holder up, nor supporting the weight of the rack.
I shook my head, not in surprise, but in confirmation.
It’s a small thing but the person taking a dangerous and simple shortcut like that could have caused a really large problem. Everyone who notes such things can’t help but wonder what else they skimped on and especially those things out of sight.
By the way, every time we visited, we found alcohol in the house. It’s not uncommon for subcontractors. No one is watching. An employee of the company who came and ate lunch with us a few times told us that it was very common and that they were constantly being told to hide the evidence. (Instead of not to drink while working on houses.) I saw contractors drinking while working on houses, too.
Having access to people who will tell you the literal truth was refreshing. One of the project managers told me a bookful of stories before leaving his job.
I still believe that if you buy a house, the contractors and builders should provide pictures of all the stages of construction. It helps everyone. When you need to repair, install, or modify anything, these pictures give you an immediate view of what is lurking.
Also, just because I’m weird, I think that if I were a builder, I’d include pictures of me, too. And probably in costume.
*Legal note: this is written under the auspices of both employee safety and in the interest of public health and debate. This commentary is almost universally applicable, regardless of geography. The policies I’m complaining about have negatively impacted thousands of lives without furthering our collective public health interests. They piss me off because people don’t understand the implications until they affect them personally. (Which might well be the national motto for the United States.)
Not all healthcare facilities and hospitals adopted a blanket approach, precisely because such policies wrongly isolate patients and reduce the quality of life of everyone involved. To those who properly implemented precautions without simultaneously severing the vital family-patient link, I thank you. Were such a facility nearby, you can be sure that you would be my first option for all healthcare services. The idea that a family cannot interact in person with their family member when they are ill is one of the most abhorrent ideas I’ve dealt with as an adult.
I have serious concerns about the no-visitor policies healthcare facilities adopted when covid made its appearance. Most of these policies weren’t based on science; they certainly went too far. When I see ‘heart-warming’ videos of long-wedded couples communicating through windows, my heart doesn’t melt. It hardens – and against those who insist that isolation in lieu of reasonable precaution is in the public health interest. We allow millions of Americans to wander in public without taking basic precautions. We are not making good decisions as people, as citizens, or as businesses.
Though it says something less than positive about me, the above angers me. It’s not an irritation that can be overlooked. I see the impact that misguided and poorly-executed policies have on real people. Your mom, sister, grandmother, son, daughter, and friend. Now, me.
Perhaps my inside view of how healthcare works discolors my opinion. Healthcare is a mammoth business. We routinely forget that healthcare is at our service. Though it is a business with a mission, it is one that should focus on the human impact of policies. They all say they agree, though when I outline my argument that demonstrates the no-visitor policies to be draconian, their faces harden and they fall back to a “trust us” stance. Failing that, they aggressively insist. After all, they hold our family members hostage inside their facilities. What can we do? Before you think that ‘hostage’ is too harsh a word, I suggest you drop a family member off at an ER without knowing they have policies that endanger your family member and isolate you from them.
Is there any other business you can think of that operates this way? By invoking the label of public safety, they can hide any motive or lack of reasoning in a policy that harms your interests. The fact that not all hospitals adopted blanket no-visitor policies logically indicates that there is strong disagreement among experts. In my case, it was nonsensical.
I did not have a voice in these policies. No family member did. As you’ll see through my emails, my presence in a hospital as a visitor constituted LESS of a risk to hospital staff than even those very hospital workers. One of the dark secrets of our covid response is that we failed to test each and every healthcare worker. Even while we were in Phase I, we didn’t test. Although the state mandated that surgical candidates would have to be tested prior to entry into the hospital, efforts to test healthcare workers at the same level of sensible precautions were stymied. The motive for such decisions probably jumps into your mind in the same manner as it does for everyone else. The public interest would have best been served by universal testing for everyone in a healthcare facility, followed by stringent testing on a scheduled basis thereafter. This can be done without fear of dismantling the healthcare industry. It would, however, make us all safer.
It is true that it would expose the fact that healthcare workers are working while infected with covid. How many might be up for debate but it would be foolish to insist that the answer is ever ‘zero.’ We can’t fix a problem by ignoring huge variables. Even though I’ve said it already, my commentary is couched inside the box of the public health interest. Only the most feeble arguments would stretch to claim that my mentioning it somehow lessens the confidence of our healthcare industry. The industry is staffed by fallible people, as is any other field such as aviation, police, or engineers. People try to do their best. When policies are shown to cause harm, they need to be modified in the same way that ‘best practices’ evolve within healthcare.
Although I intervened in the cases of others when they were fighting hospitals needlessly keeping them at a distance from their loved ones, I knew eventually the policies I loathed would affect me personally. I had several conversations with my wife. During each, I repeated that I’d rather risk a lower chance of survival in exchange for the simple human right to have her visit and watch over me and my care. It is for the same reason I’ve instructed her that I don’t give consent to ever be airlifted anywhere. I trust my local healthcare facilities. I trust them more because proximity increases the chances that people who know me will be able to visit and observe my care. I do not want to ever be in a facility that denies her access to me unless it is a prison. Weirdly enough in the case of a prison, she’d still be able to visit.
Hospitals of course weight varying interests when establishing policy. Covid, though, has caused a lot of decisions to be made with inadequate information or in fear of liability. You, as a family member, are powerless to appeal, threaten, or sue hospitals for their policies.
One of my friends in particular was forced to endure days of being away from her dying husband. She finally was allowed to see him shortly before his death. I think Northwest Arkansas was on the verge of mounting an insurrection had she not been granted access. All those days they were separated were needless and harmed the public interest. Anyone looking at the issue from a wide perspective agrees that blanket no-visitor policies only serve to hurt human beings. They are written to protect hospitals – which already enjoy immunity and liability protection. If you read my emails below, I address the futility and stupidity of these policies that prohibit loved ones from seeing their family.
During those weeks, despite the fact that the policies did not affect me personally, I wrote opinion pieces and contacted as many interested people as I could to object to these horrific no-visitor policies. The silence from those who could have made sensible changes was astonishing. The same was true regarding efforts to test everyone working in healthcare.
My mother-in-law was rushed to the ER. She was suffering from what we presumed to be diabetic shock. We all met at the ER entrance at the hospital. No one was allowed to enter the ER with her, despite her deteriorating condition and her complex medical condition. A State Trooper, complete with gun, badge, and uniform sent a clear message to my sister-in-law that family members were the problem.
My mother-in-law is 80. She sat in a chair unattended for quite a while, getting worse. No one was there to insist they be cautious with fluid intake, insulin, or the other things that were vital to her proper and safe care. My mother-in-law’s inability to have someone there as her advocate and loved one contributed to a level of care that suffered as a result. Now that the moment has passed, the hospital can claim this to be untrue. As we’ve discovered once again with our recent riots and the events that precipitated them, events that are recorded or witnessed are more difficult to excuse away. Prior to covid, one of the best means to improve a patient’s care was to have both companionship and oversight for that patient. Those will diligent family members directly improve and suffer fewer health complications than those who don’t. No-visitor policies have stripped patients of the right to have oversight by those who care for them.
I wrote the hospital through its portal. My goal was to request permission to assist in better care for my family member, as well as provide companionship. I knew that the approaching holiday weekend would increase her isolation. Here’s what I wrote:
“My mother-in-law is in your facility.
I work at another hospital. I’m COVID-negative and get screened each day.
I’d like to know why I am not allowed entry into the hospital to visit my mother-in-law.
She was admitted through the ER without a COVID test. I also know that even though hospitals are testing all elective surgery candidates, they are not testing all employees within the facility.
IF you have a method to allow me to visit, please advise me as to the protocol.
Thanks, X Teri”
Someone wrote back:
“Thanks for reaching out to us and I’m sorry your mother-in-law is ill. If you will send your phone number, I can have one of our nursing leaders call you. I’m copying our Interim CNO in case she is able to respond by email but I think a phone call would be easier.
These are certainly tough times for everyone and we are sorry for the pain and inconvenience these temporary policy changes on visitation are causing. As you know, they are in place to minimize risks of patients or staff health being compromised, particularly since many people are asymptomatic before they test positive for covid.”
In short, the above is a “No, you may not visit” response.
The next day, I received a reply from someone else, presumably higher in authority:
“Teri, ____________ copied me on your request to evaluate the possibility of visitation at _______________ hospital. As I am sure you recognize, this is a difficult time, the surge of Covid patients has required administration at our hospital, as well as the region, to place restrictions on visitor access. These efforts are to mitigate any possible exposure to our patient population already managing their illnesses or post surgical recovery.
We have made available to our staff access to ipads or recommended the use of phones to support face time calls and discussions with the nursing and physicians if requested by the identified contact family member to provide additional means of support. Nursing staff are available 24/7 to connect with families.
I can empathize with the challenges this places on families but safety is our priority at this time as we continue to care for our community.
Please reach out to me personally if you have any additional questions or needs.
Thank you for your understanding.”
Here is my reply:
“Thank you for replying.
My first name is X, as unusual as that is. This isn’t a “gotcha” email. Please don’t interpret this email as an attack. I am writing it in one fell swoop to voice my objection and concern.
I have a family member in your facility. I know that her initial care was less than desirable due to no one being allowed to accompany her during her initial ER visit. No matter how the issue is characterized, she did not receive the care she could have, precisely because the adopted no-visitor policy prohibited her caregiver or another person from being present. This absence needlessly caused the healthcare workers to lack information that would have affected both the timeliness and effectiveness of her treatment. I don’t expect anyone to enthusiastically agree with my assessment. It is, however, a hard truth – and one supported by the facts.
I understand the issues surrounding covid.
One of the things that has long puzzled me is that while hospitals pre-test elective surgery patients, we still haven’t tested all healthcare workers.
Statistically speaking, we know that we have covid-positive healthcare worker cases. We had the opportunity prior to resuming surgery schedules to test each team member at our local hospitals. For a variety of reasons, we didn’t do so.
This continues to trouble me greatly as I see families grapple with the ‘no visitor’ policies. I knew it would eventually come around and affect me personally.
Knowing that “we don’t know” whether healthcare workers continue to expose patients is an issue that I can’t get around. While I, as a worker in a healthcare facility in Northwest Arkansas, get screened daily, have been tested for covid and follow routine precautions each day, can’t assist in the healthcare of my family member. This disconnect isn’t logical and doesn’t serve my family’s interests or those of public health.
While I still would not agree with the visitor policies most hospitals have adopted, I find it illogical that hospitals are not doing everything possible to help our community; such efforts would include testing each and every team member at your facilities. It certainly would allow for those of us in healthcare and who have been tested to be allowed to see our family members.
The fact that I’ve been tested when most of your staff has not should be sufficient justification to be allowed to wear PPE and see my family member. Once you see it written that way, it is hard to continue to see fit to disagree with my claim that I should be able to visit my family member.
I don’t expect my reasoned response to draw a change of heart for your hospital.
I’ve argued against these policies from the day they were implemented.
Each of us is exposed and exposes others on a daily basis. It’s true that we might hopefully reduce our involvement, the statistical truth is that we have passed the point of logical precautions.
While it might be easier to issue a blanket no-visitor policy, it is one not based on consistent logic or one taking into account the needs of human beings when they are ill.
I only wrote back in the futile chance logic would prevail and I’d be allowed to visit my mother-in-law.
Absent that, I did not want my silence to be interpreted as agreement with a policy that goes too far and without merit to the extreme of impacting our companionship and oversight of the care our family member might receive.
The first person wrote me back, instead of the person higher up. A holiday weekend was approaching. It’s likely the higher-up was off for the holiday.
“X – thank you for copying me on this. I am not a clinician but what you say does make sense to me & I can assure you it will be discussed. In fact, we all know that – in ordinary times – we encourage involvement of family members & other caretakers. ______________ checks email regularly and would encourage you to reach out to her or the house supervisor any time you want to discuss a concern or have a question. Again, I’m sorry for the issues that have led to these temporary very strict policies”
I waited and heard nothing directly about my appeal or request. So, I wrote both of the people I’d heard from:
“I know the holiday probably exacerbated _________’s lack of enthusiasm to attempt a reply to me. I forwarded the email to you because you were the first point of contact for my issue. Each day that passes with rules that force distance between family members is one that cannot be reclaimed.
In your reply, you said something critical to my issue: “…these temporary very strict policies…”
From a family point of view, the policy that prohibits me from seeing my mother-in-law isn’t temporary. It could very well be permanent. I know people who experienced that very issue. They didn’t get the chance to speak face-to-face with their loved ones. They’d entered healthcare facilities without oversight and companionship. And they died in those conditions.
While I objected to these policies when they did not personally affect me, I’m flummoxed to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced them how needlessly draconian they are. Because I have a view from the inside, I know that these policies are blanket policies and do not generally advance the objective of public safety that they purport to. In my case specifically, they only do harm.
I enter a larger healthcare facility each day, get screened, and have been tested for covid. Yet, when misfortune touched my family, I was somehow classified as the general public and denied access to my family member. I’ve been tested for covid, which is far and away more than the overwhelming majority of healthcare workers in your facility can say.
Additionally, your healthcare workers live and work in one of the hottest hot spots in the United States. They eat, shop, and move about among a high concentration of people who do not wear masks and do not observe proper social distancing. Your healthcare workers, the ones caring for my mother-in-law, come to work after such exposure each and every day. Even though I work in a similar but different environment, I am lumped in with the general public, despite being tested and despite following protocols when out in public.
It is lunacy to deny me access to my mother-in-law. Factually speaking, I present LESS exposure to your staff and other patients than your own healthcare workers.
It’s easy for me to get preachy in these emails. On the other hand, hospitals are places where people experience tragedy daily.
When people are ill, especially as old as my mother-in-law, there is no such thing as temporary.
The policies you are enforcing might well be permanent in my case. I don’t know how else to say it.
When logic does not intersect with law (and voluntary rules), the effect is that people needlessly are harmed.
If hospitals don’t intelligently and scientifically lift these burdensome and needless restrictions, the same policies may one day befall you and your loved ones.
Again, I didn’t expect a reversal of policy but I honestly hoped that sense, logic, and compassion would prevail.
I’m still waiting. I’m not the first. And it is a further tragedy that I will not be the last.
I haven’t received a reply, of course. Two days have elapsed. I wrote them a final email, after hearing nothing in response.
“Given that I wrote Saturday and did not receive a reply, I am assuming that my emails weren’t bumped up for further consideration? I didn’t know if there was an appeal process or if an edict had been announced that allows for no variance. I know that some patients were allowed visitors in the interim.
I can understand if you would have said, “The matter is closed.” I wouldn’t be happy, but it at least it would have been a final statement.
Since this issue came up for me personally, several people have reached out and provided me with details about other families and how they were dealt with. I have a lot to consider going forward.
Under the assumption that no one will reach out to me again, I’ll close by saying that it was wrong for _____________________ to prevent me from being with my mother-in-law in the ER and thereafter in her room. It’s a policy without logical footing and one which inhibits the public health you’re charged to protect.
As with thousands of others, the hospital has artificially and needlessly robbed me of my ability to be with my family member.
Looking at my case specifically, it is a fact that I present less of a risk to patients and staff than the staff members working in the facility do. I can prove I’m not covid positive. I can enter using PPE that eliminates the risk. Meanwhile, staff members caring for patients at the facility that denies me entry are working, shopping, and living in one of the hottest hot spots per capita in the United States. They haven’t been tested. They walk among a community that does not protect itself by wearing masks or social distance at a rational and reasonable level.
They are a bigger risk than I am.
I’m been tested. They have not.
Anyone who doesn’t question these policies hasn’t had the misfortune of watching their family member needlessly suffer.
My mother-in-law moved a few months ago from a remote location to Springdale in part to be closer to medical care when needed. We’ve visited more in the last few months than we have in years. Ironically, hospitals have worsened that wound of isolation by refusing to allow me to see her.
One hundred thousand people die from infections they receive while in healthcare facilities. This was true before covid.
The workers caring for my mother-in-law haven’t been tested, even though it is an obvious step to ensure the public health and employee safety.
Somehow, I’m the problem?
These policies must go. They must be replaced by sensible public policy and hospital rules that take into account the interests of the whole patient.
Test all healthcare workers, both now and on a scheduled timeline.
Allow designated visitors, even if a covid test is required.
Ask patients and visitors to sign a liability form, to address the primary and obvious reason that hospitals continue to abuse their discretion regarding visitors.
Require masks in public.
Continue to do the same.
P.S. The hospital responded to my appeal request on Friday, days after my mother-in-law was discharged. It’s hard to make this stuff up.
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.
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.
I started with the best of intentions: I stopped at Aldi to buy my mother-in-law another loaf of Apple Strudel Breakfast Bread. I first bought it for her as a whim. As such things go, the bread is pretty fabulous. It is with a begrudging spirit that I give any compliments to Aldi. I’m still very cautious about what I buy there. I will admit, however, that they offer a few things that aren’t available in other places. (Other than typhoid and a persistent rash, I mean.) I blame my friend Marjay for reminding me of Aldi. She shared a social media post yesterday about the dynamics of returning one’s cart.
Given that my job has a work limit allegedly due to the COVID crisis, I ran from my job with glee a little while ago. I should have paid more attention to the forecast. If not the forecast, I should have looked behind me as I drove across Springdale. There was a massive dark cell approaching. Had I noticed it, I would have driven directly home. I definitely would not have parked at the furthest part of the lot, either, something I almost always do when the executive committee chairwoman isn’t with me. (That would be my wife.)
I entered Aldi’s to buy three or four things besides the aforementioned delicious Apple Strudel bread. I ended up with a couple of dozen items and had to retrieve a shopping cart to carry them. It was at that point I noted the massive black wall almost on top of the store. Ignoring my instincts, I put my items in the cart and finished shopping. By the time the helpful cashier was throwing my items in my cart like it was an Olympic qualifying event, we could see the sheets of rain, as well as hear them strike the store’s roof.
I bought some bags, piled my stuff in them, and waited by the long window at the front of the store. My three or four items had blossomed into three large bags of food. Anyone looking at me would have thought I might be a huge fan of Aldi. It was a strange coincidence that today was my biggest Aldi haul in years.
There were several customers congregated along the bank of windows, all staring at the massive storm that greeted us. One woman with a full cart didn’t hesitate. She walked into the rain without wincing, unloaded her cart, and walked back to the front to return it to the corral. She resembled an otter that had just emerged from an overflowing creek. I’m assuming she is the mother of several children; only such unavoidable training could result in that kind of resigned demeanor. Additionally, she owned a minivan. It’s common knowledge that driving a minivan is tantamount to tacit approval to get drenched while doing the weekly shopping.
We watched one brave soul exit Aldi with a bag of groceries. In horror, we watched as he ran across 412. Anyone familiar with the danger would understand. Running across through rain so thick we could barely see across the street was an added element of lunacy.
After several minutes, I decided that the storm wasn’t going to abate. Pushing my cart ahead of me, I exited. As I crossed the main door, an unattended cart rolled by at a very fast speed, heading across the lot and destined to crush someone’s car. An employee cursed and then darted to get it. He was drenched by the time he came back. I half-ran, knowing it was futile. The sheets of rain hit me and surprised me by how cold it was.
At this point, I’d like to mention I hadn’t done my work laundry in a few days. As a result, I wore a pair of my old pants, ones with a much larger stretchy waste. I used my belt to tighten it drastically while I worked. Even so, my pants threatened to drop once or twice.
Because of the heavy rain, my pants drooped as I shuffled across the parking lot. As I half-ran, my pants, belt and all, slipped down past my gray underwear. I didn’t hear a round of applause from any of those employees or customers hiding from the rain at the front of the store. I stopped and got my pants to stay more or less and up and continued on to the car.
I crossed a river between the last rows of cars. The water reached my ankles as I crossed. As I opened the rear door of my car, I realized at the last second that the paper bags had become ornamental at that point. By sheer luck, I didn’t drop any of my groceries. I picked the other bags up like cannonballs and dropped them in the back.
Because why not, I walked my cart back up to the store. I told the employee, “My pants fell off on the way. My apologies for the unsolicited reminder to always wear underwear.”
Driving across Springdale on 412 was another adventure. Several vehicles decided to avoid the overflowing storm drains along the edge by driving in both lanes. I didn’t witness any accidents. While driving, I could feel the water puddling in my seat and on the floor.
When I arrived home, my wife had opened the garage door for me. I don’t park in the garage. I had to carry each of the three soaked bags to the inside of the garage one at a time, placing them on the concrete near the inner door. The rain was cascading across the roof of the car and hitting me in the face each time I opened the car door. Afterward, I wasn’t sure the garage door would close against the wind gusts and blowing rain. I had to strip out of my clothes while standing in the garage, surrounded by my valuable groceries.
Note: despite what you’d think, it is not romantic or sexy to watch your drenched husband bring in the groceries. I base this knowledge on the rapidity with which my wife exited the scene.
I could feel the loaf of Apple Strudel bread chuckling at me while I did. “Was I worth all that,” I’m sure it was asking me.
The cat’s been staring at the dryer strangely ever since I put my soaked shoes in there. He was so startled earlier when the shoes knocked the dryer door open that he bolted across the narrow entrance hallway at supersonic speed, smashing directly into the wall. His only comment was a strange, “Meowwwwwww,” even as he weirdly plopped down on the floor.
I can identify with the cat. Whether my greater error was in going to Aldi or doing so during a monsoon is up to you to decide.
Around me, the world continued, its billions of inhabitants each contributing their parts to the melee of the planet.
In the passenger seat sat an unusual amount of Mexican food I’d picked up from Acambaro, certainly more than two people should safely eat. In the bag, among other things, were five full orders of pico de gallo. Anyone who dislikes the smell of onions should assume my breath to be worse than normal after lunch. For anyone who doesn’t know: an order of pico de gallo at Acambaro is not your typical meager serving. Five such orders contain and order of magnitude of onions, cilantro, and chopped tomatoes. While you may challenge me to do ten pushups, I challenge you to eat five servings of this with a full meal without questioning your own sanity.
The car smelled like a restaurant as I drove east on Huntsville. Around me, several drivers seemed intent on reaching warp speed. For several, it was obvious they needed to be more concerned about the condition of their vehicles, their personal hygiene, and their ability to confine themselves to at least two lanes. Were in not before noon, I would have assumed several had attended a “Drink-All-You-Want” wine tasting.
As I slowly stopped at the intersection of 265 near the packed Kum & Go, I lowered my driver’s window. All the cars who’d been training for the Indy 500 for the half-mile were in the left lane. I turned my car volume to “19,” a volume that could potentially launch a satellite into orbit. My USB was playing “Automatica” by Nigel Stanford. If you’ve never heard it, you’re in for a treat. (And not the kind of treat that’s covered in lint in the bottom of the candy jar at your Grandma’s, either.)
As the young Latino in the first car looked over at me, I smiled like a lunatic, showing him all my teeth. I put the window up, even as I looked at him. I like to imagine how weird it must have looked to him to see me continue to smile like a hyena while the window went up in front of my face. “Inspired By Hannibal Lecter” probably approximates his discomfort. I had to laugh.
The light changed, and the left lane’s performance drivers rocketed off – but not before a small dark Honda vehicle sitting on 265 turned right and went across into their lane. As you would expect, the dark Honda immediately slowed to 25 mph. The fast drivers all hit their brakes as I went past them. I was amused.
As Huntsville curves south lazily, the throng of traffic began jockeying for position as the drivers neared Emma. At that point, Huntsville magically transforms into Butterfield Coach Road, a name so ridiculously preposterous that no one willingly wants to call it that. When Latinos ask me what it means or what the translation for “Butterfield” might be, I sometimes tell them that it is a medical condition characterized by high volume diarrhea. Sometimes I let them continue to think it’s true.
To the south and east, the sky was darkening rapidly.
The City of Springdale changed the roads a few years back to make them safer. I assume that was the reasoning. The stretch of road from Emma to the next huge curve has been beautiful for walking since the road deviated. Now, however, a spur is being built on the inside of the curve on the right side. Frequently, cones suddenly appear from the proverbial mist and force the right lane to suddenly merge with the left. That’s the theory, anyway. What it actually does is weed out those who are under the influence of marijuana and/or using their phones as they drive.
Because I drive it frequently, I tend to assume that someone’s going to do something stupid. Today, as the music blared, I watched a black Grand Cherokee Laredo approach from the rear going at least 70 mph. (Contrary to popular belief, and even though there are a lot of people who want to get out of Springdale as quickly as possible, we don’t have 70 mph zones. Note: the police allow you to drive 90 on 412 if you’ve eaten at Taco Bell – and do so for obvious gastrointestinal reasons.) As the Laredo neared me on the right and then passed, I noticed that their tag was a paper one. I had a sudden insight that it was their turn to be an idiot. There was no sign on their car to indicate this. I just knew. As they came into the cones pushing them left, I saw the Laredo eat one under the bumper. I assume the driver woke up at that point because the brake lights lit up vividly. I could almost feel the driver’s butt clench up from inside my own car. The Laredo lurched left, like a drunk who’d hit his head on the chandelier. The Laredo then went back and forth quickly. I was convinced I was going to see the driver go off into the large dirt valley that had been recently excavated for what appears to be a new access road. It’s right on the inside of the curve, too, where it will probably inspire more accidents.
Luckily, the Laredo didn’t do a Dukes of Hazzard. We stopped at the next light at Parsons Road. I noticed a black Escalade in front. On each side of the vehicle was a group of yellow balloons. On the rear, there was a sign wishing someone a happy 2020 graduation. The “O” of 2020 was a roll of toilet paper. I didn’t catch the name on the vehicle. The emergency lights were flashing. I couldn’t see inside the vehicle due to the near-total tint on the windows.
In 2020, maybe it’s a good thing to not see where one might be going.
103 seconds had elapsed since I noticed the time on the usb device on my car stereo.
In a way that you might understand, those 103 seconds felt almost accordion-like in my mind.
When I had time a little later, after writing this, I visited Google Maps and went back in time to 2008 to travel these same roads virtually. What a strange thing memory is, wrapping itself in blankets of time in an unending crescendo.
Before starting this story, I’d like to mention that a friend wrote to me two days ago to tell me about her memories of the area over by old Highway 68 and where the interstate now crosses 412. Because I didn’t get to see pictures of the area as I’d hoped, I had to rely mostly on my memory. I know that photo collections exist, but they aren’t publicly shared, which is a terrible fact to me. I’m the first to admit that I sometimes get a detail spectacularly wrong. My friend remembered the duplexes across the street, mainly because one of her best friend’s father owned them. I don’t remember the Afghan Hound breeder who lived nearby either, even though it sounds very familiar, like a half-forgotten dream. I enjoy the idea of my interconnectedness with people. We shared memories and places without realizing it. For her, the place I write about was full of interest and friendship. Truthfully, were I with other adults who cared for me, I would have discovered the same carefree love of the place. It was a beautiful area and one perfect for children with a bit of freedom and adventure on their minds.
This story isn’t exactly how I wanted it. Instead of worrying about the tone, mixed messages, or errors, I’m sharing it, just as I’ve shared anything else.
In one of my recent stories, I wrote about living where the interstate crosses Highway 412 now. We moved to Springdale after my 5th birthday; I don’t recall exactly when. I skipped kindergarten, though. Grandma made a cake for me for that birthday and my cousin Michael Wayne helped me demolish it. Had I known it would mark the end of my childhood, I would have escaped through the empty fields around us. We had lived in several places in Brinkley after Dad reunited with Mom. We lived in Wheatley because I remember being very sick on Xmas day. We lived past S. Grand until the house caught on fire. We also lived somewhere near the intersection of Pine and the main drag through Brinkley, as well off Highway 39 near the intersection of Highway 49. I’ve written before that we lived in more than a couple of dozen places as a family. I don’t count the other places or otherwise, the count would be up to forty.
After a couple of intervening places in Johnson and Springdale, we moved to a very small house owned by my cousin. As my Dad got a job at his shop, we lived close to where he would work.
48th street was a narrow pasture road to nowhere. Along the street were a couple of huge oak trees. Having spent a bit of time considering the details, the tallest one was definitely 70-80 feet tall. I could use the edge of a protruding gas pipe to lift myself up to the first horizontal branch. I loved that tree. Its branches were spaced almost perfectly for a reckless boy to climb them. Around 50 feet up, it took a bit of actual deathwish to get past a couple of the branches. I often used the tree as a refuge. The apple and pear trees were much thicker and harder to climb. The oak tree near the road also provided me with a bird’s eye view of a great deal of land. I was a better climber than my siblings, despite being more rotund at times and certainly less agile.
One evening, my family was at Goldie and Ellis’ house a bit further up the road toward the highway. By way of preface, my immediate family never played games together, unless you count hide-and-seek due to fear of actual death. We did not have “Family Nights.” Most of our social lives revolved around my Uncle Buck and his wife, Aunt Ardith. Uncle Buck was my Dad’s older brother. A few nights through the years, we went up to Goldie’s house and played board games at their table. I was completely out of my element. I didn’t know how to react. I certainly failed to understand how the two people playing the role of Mom and Dad could behave so shockingly different around other people. Because Goldie was the mother of my Dad’s boss and otherwise regarded as superior, expectations were different for her and her house. Given that these were never spelled out until after the fact, there were often misunderstandings. Misunderstandings involving children in my immediate family always resulted in physical violence while being shouted at incoherently; there was no discernible lesson nor clear tea leaves to read.
Though it might strike you an incongruous, Dad loved Goldie in a way he couldn’t express to his own family. Goldie had experience with alcoholism due to her husband Ellis. Dad, even when not drinking, could demonstrate affection for Goldie in a way that confused me. In the case of his immediate family, familiarity did indeed breed contempt.
One of my favorite memories was one Friday or Saturday night when we were at Goldie’s playing Sorry!. It’s hard to believe that actually happened – that members of my family engaged in playing a board game. Our supper had been cut short due to Mom and Dad needing a drink before they went to Goldie’s house next door. Mom made some kind of horrible meat that night and nothing to go with it except bread. Since mustard sandwiches were a favorite of mine, I ignored the meat and made myself a mustard sandwich. For a reason that will never be known, this enraged my Dad. He back-handed me across the face and I fell to the floor. Everyone pretended I hadn’t just been smacked in the face. I waited a minute to determine if Dad was finished with his tirade. It was impossible to know. I ran outside and sat under one of the trees near the front of the trailer.
While we sat around Goldie’s kitchen table, Goldie asked me if I would like a bite of something. Goldie, being older, loved feeding children. I smiled and said, “Yes ma’am. Thanks!” She pointed toward the fridge and said, “Get yourself all you want.” I stood up and walked over to the fridge to open it.
I heard my mom say “Bobby Dean! Look at him!”
I knew my life was about to end but couldn’t determine why. I recognized that horrible and vengeful tone of my Mom’s voice. That tone was as hateful as any Nazi in WWII.
Without understanding specifically, I was about to be punished for daring to open the fridge at someone’s house, even after being invited to do so. The truth is that my only real crime was having survived to that point and to be available for my parents to use me as a vessel on which to pour their enigmatic wrath.
Goldie said something I don’t remember. I’m sure it was similar to, “Bobby Dean, leave that boy alone. He’s just hungry and I invited him.” The tone of her voice as she spoke was filled with kindness and with the opposite of my Mom when she invoked Dad’s attention to me.
Behind me, I heard a chair scoot back and boots hit the floor. Just as I was about to wince, Dad grabbed me by the neck and pushed/dragged me outside. Since it was dark outside, I couldn’t imagine what I would be hit with. The answer was nothing. My dad grabbed me by the neck and top of my pants and picked me up and threw me off the end of the porch into the gravel of the driveway. It stunned me as I hit the gravel. I didn’t move. Dad threw me several feet into the air and across a decent distance. Even in pain, I knew that to play dead was my best option. Dad pulled a Camel from his shirt and lit it. He paced as he smoked. When he was done, he flicked the cigarette out into the dark without saying a word to me and went back inside. For all he knew, my neck had snapped when he threw me like a bag of trash.
I considered running and climbing the tree but knew the subsequent beating would only be worsened by my doing so.
I waited and sat on the bottom riser of the porch steps. A few minutes later, Goldie opened the door and said, “Come here, I have something for you.” I went to the door as she handed me a glass of tea and a piece of what turned out to be some kind of delicious cake. “Leave the glass out here when you’re done.” She smiled at me and went back inside.
I’m still at odds over how my parents handled our presence at other’s houses. Not that we had the opportunity very often, of course, but we were scared children who assumed that imaginary rules dictated our behavior. Regardless of how well-behaved we were, we still remained incredulous at some of the behavior of our parents. They could literally break the front door in anger on Friday night, while threatening to kill the host in a fit of anger, yet act as if wanting a soda was the same as defecating on the living room floor in front of all the guests. No matter what we did, punishment was likely. Growing older, it was a shock to realize that all of this resulted from a character flaw in both of my parents and actually had nothing to do with me as a child.
A few days later, I was in the machine shop where Dad worked, waiting to see if he would assign some random and horrible work for me to try to do. With his mumbling, instructions were scarce at best. I’d take a furtive look around and steal a couple of sugar cubes from the coffee area. My cousin exited the shop floor where Dad was restoring another Chevy Cheyenne pickup. “Hey, how are you doing? Get you some sugar cubes if you want them.” He laughed. He knew I’d been pilfering the sugar cubes. He wouldn’t mind if ate one hundred of them provided he had some for his next cup of coffee.
Dad came into the office and lit a cigarette. “You can sweep the chat off the floor.” Miraculously, I understand his mumble. I went into the machine shop and grabbed a floor broom and starting pushing it. My right arm was killing me. The broom was a bit long for someone my height and the fact that my arm hurt made it cumbersome.
Dad and my cousin exited the office area and entered the expansive shop area where I was sweeping. My cousin good-naturedly said, “What’s the matter, did a girl whip your butt?” Because he was speaking to me in humor and kindness, I must have dropped my guard and lost all sense. “Nah, I got thrown off a porch.” I said it as a joke without any intent to bring up the incident at Goldie’s house.
Dad said something in anger. I knew he was coming for me and despite the fact that another adult was witness, I wasn’t sure I would survive. Acknowledging Dad’s violence, even in front of people who’d witnessed it a dozen times, was a crime punishable by excessive violence. When I watch shows wherein the villain threatens to kill all the hostages if the person says anything to the police, I find instant credibility in the storyline; it echoes perfectly the atmosphere of my Dad’s outlook.
I ran through the painting area in the back and out the back access where cars could be driven in and out to be sand-blasted, sanded, and painted. I never ran from Dad. Running always accelerated Dad’s timeline for violence. I didn’t look back. I ran to the left, turning where the walnut or pecan tree stood. (I can’t remember which it was. I should remember: it’s where I almost died and had an injury so bad I had almost 200 stitches in my head. That’s a story for another day) I ran across the expanse of yard and field, past the long garden toward the add-on attached to the back of the trailer. I turned to see Dad angrily striding across the grass. I ran around the end of the trailer and bee-lined it to my favorite tree. I climbed as high as I could possibly go. As comical as it sounds, I probably could have jumped and the top of my head would have popped through the top of that 70-80 foot tall tree.
A few minutes later, Dad stood at the bottom of the tree, screaming angrily at me. I pretended I couldn’t hear him. I wasn’t worried about him climbing as high as I was. I should have been. But that part comes later. Dad walked over toward the gravel to find rocks. He picked up a few larger ones and began to throw them as hard and high as he could in an attempt to hit me. To be honest, I know he was hoping to hit me. If I had fallen, he would have justified it easily as a case of a disobedient son. None hit me but several crashed through the foliage near me and below me.
I waited for at least an hour after Dad left. I climbed down a few feet every so often until I was sitting on the bottom limb. Scarily, Dad did not say anything to me for the rest of the day. I had no choice except to go inside and face the wrath. It did not come. That day.
The next afternoon, Dad said, “Go outside.” Knowing he was going to beat me to death, I went outside the trailer and down the steps. I followed him to the road and stood near the tree. “I put one of your toys at the top of the tree. Climb up there and get it down.”
I couldn’t imagine saying “No.” If Dad said a beating would be worse if I cried or objected, he felt it was his manly duty to literally flay skin strips from me to prove he was not to be trifled with. Anger that was slowly boiled always was more dangerous. To be clear, I cried, ragged tears of fear. There was no right course of action. I knew Dad was going to throw rocks at me as soon as I climbed the first branch.
Barely able to see and shaking like a leaf in the tree above me, I grabbed the branch and tried to climb as quickly as possible. After the first limb, I moved partly around the trunk to make the angle of Dad’s aim more difficult. As predicted, Dad started throwing rocks when I reached about twenty feet from the ground. I kept climbing. At about thirty, one of the rocks hit my leg. It didn’t hurt much. It gave Dad more motivation to throw the rocks harder and begin to scream at me. From across the street, a man walked out on to his driveway. I have another story about him later.
“What the hell is going on here?” He shouted at Dad. I knew two things: he knew Dad was throwing rocks at me and he also knew Dad was violent. There’s no way he hadn’t witnessed many of the domestic violence episodes at our house and then two subsequent trailers there. I kept climbing.
Dad turned toward the man across the street: “Mind your f%%ing business if you know what’s good for you.” Dad turned back and ignored him. Somehow, he knew the man would go no further.
He kept throwing rocks. I looked up and could see that Dad had placed an empty whiskey bottle way up in the tree. I couldn’t imagine him climbing that high. Had I watched him while he did so, I would have caught myself praying that gravity would take him down to his death. No matter who is reading this, I can’t apologize for the certainty of the fact that our lives would have significantly improved by his absence. I would have mourned his inability to see another path in life, yet also simultaneously recognized the possibilities created by his absence. When he was in prison in Indiana when I was very young, I experienced life free from his volatility.
As I reached a point about ten feet from the highest point I’d ever climbed and grabbed the bottle. I threw it out of the tree. “I said to bring that f#$ing thing down!” Dad screamed. Without realizing it, I knew he was going to beat me regardless when I made my way down. For a second, I thought about throwing myself out of the tree the way I had thrown the bottle. It wasn’t a suicidal thought; it was the type of perverted self-preservation that abused children consider to be logical. It’s difficult to train oneself out of it as an adult.
However long it took me to get down from the tree, Dad’s anger built. Dad dragged me into the trailer, a sign he needed privacy to teach me a lesson. For his worse beatings, rarely did someone outside the immediate group of family hostages witness them.
It wasn’t the last time he tortured me with trees or even visits to abandoned houses and barns in the dead of night. Often, his whimsy was self-attributed to humor and prank. A few times, it was. Others, though, were dark indicators of the vast well of illness and unhappiness he suffered from.
As horribly as Dad beat me, he never beat the love of that tree out of me. In it, I could see above, beyond, and through the places around me, just as the cedar tree at Grandpa’s had done on a smaller scale.
Though it may be unfair, it is my turn to throw different rocks all these years later. My Dad is deceased and unable to defend himself. I’m older now by a few years than he ever was. The little boy I was held no grudges. Just fear, and confusion. Those have been replaced by an appreciation for the absurdity and frequency of what I lived through. My story is one of thousands of children, even today. I try to focus on the humor my Dad could sometimes display. If he sat beside me today as I write this, he would call me a co#$su#$ker and laugh. He ran out of road before he could make amends. I like to imagine that my Dad could have been able to climb the beautiful oak tree with me and share the view of the world above Springdale in 1974.
I started out writing another story but was pleasantly sidetracked by discoveries I made about little pieces of family history today.
Over the years, as I’ve laboriously uncovered pieces of evidence, a fuller picture of some of my life has emerged. After a childhood filled with constant shushing and shouts of “Don’t talk about that!” I’m relieved to know that the historical record left breadcrumbs in the world. Some of them aren’t the smoking guns I would have hoped, but as circumstantial evidence, they provide an undeniable trajectory for some of my stories.
Not too long ago, by accidental fortune, I discovered newspaper articles regarding my Dad’s imprisonment in Indiana when I was younger. Before that, I finally found a mention of the accident in which my drunk Dad killed a maternal cousin of mine. Not only did they fill in the blanks for several unanswered questions I had growing up, but they told me part of the story in an impartial voice. So much of what I was told was a lie or misdirected.
On Father’s Day last year, I found out that I have a half-black sister. Her color is only mentioned because of the irony of her existence, given the racism of many of my family. I’ll take a DNA revelation over a document or historical piece of evidence any day. I’ll take my corroboration anywhere I can get it, though.
This accident happened after Mom and Dad had a huge fight at my Uncle Buck’s house. Mom left in the car. She was drinking heavily, of course. We were very close to turning left onto our road from Highway 68 (412). What fascinates me about this article I found today is that if you were a historian or researcher, you would mistakenly think Mom wasn’t at fault in the accident, especially because Mom was hit from the rear. There are a lot of assumptions at play here. You’d have to know that it’s possible Mom could have forgotten to turn on her lights – or that she thought the car behind was following too closely and slammed on her brakes – or that she was so drunk she was about to miss her turn off the highway – and so on. I don’t know what was in the report of the accident. I do remember clearly that everyone at the scene knew that Mom was drunk and that she was shouting in anger at everyone, especially the police. She took the time to use her specialty curse words, too. I don’t remember whose name Mom invoked, but whoever it was resulted in no ticket for her or questions about the open Budweiser can in her lap at the time of the accident. Mom had several accidents at this intersection, two or three of which involved other vehicles. Because part of Dad’s job at the time involved a car and body repair, he fixed the vehicles at no charge. He knew how to game the system to extract a bit of extra cash from the process, too. Northwest Arkansas had places one could go for stolen parts.
In case you didn’t read it in my other posts, my Mom and Dad paid off several DWIs illegally. It was a common practice, as most residents in Springdale should remember. Money could make problems go away. My family was strikingly poor at times yet when necessity demanded it, money miraculously appeared to be used as kickbacks, bribes, or payoffs.
For the picture above, I remember the fire only because it happened around Xmas. I’m not convinced it was started by heating tape. Mom and Dad both smoked. Dad often did things shoddily. I’ve written before about the number of houses and trailers that burned during Mom’s lifetime. I do remember that my Mom and Dad fought like hornets after this fire. Anytime people with authority intersected with our lives, mayhem ensued.
This is the first residence we lived in on the same long corner of 48th Street and Highway 68, now 412. The house was very small and green and sat the south end of the property just a few feet away from the pasture behind it. The next two residences were trailers placed in the same general place perpendicular to the narrow road. I know too much about this fire. My family was the last one to live in it. My died burned it down on purpose. He used the water heater to ignite the rest of the house.
I found these tidbits accidentally today while looking for a picture of the frontage along highway 68 in the early 70s.
I’ve been trying to write or finish several interconnected stories regarding the time my family lived in the area where Denny’s, La Quinta, and the Springdale Convention Center now sit.
The common thread to these is the increasing and overwhelming certainty that the story I’ve tried to tell in increments is true. It’s a story that no one else would have ever told.
Years before the interstate crossed western Springdale, my cousin owned a big chunk of land where the Springdale Convention Center, Denny’s, and La Quinta now stand. (Little did he know how valuable his land would one day become.) He had one of the region’s largest machine shops there. (If such things matter for the story, he technically was ‘the husband of a 1st cousin 1x removed.’)
Along the road, his parents, Goldie and Ellis, owned a house, followed by a trailer and another little house further down. Pasture framed the property in a large “L.” Like much of the area, it was rural and Highway 412 was a slender ribbon known as 68. 48th Street cut across the highway, uninterrupted by the interstate like it is now. It’s interesting that Springdale is now reconnecting across that area with Gene George Blvd. On our side of the highway, 48th Street was a narrow road to almost nowhere. Close to the road stood several massive oak trees, a couple of them towering high about the landscape. There were pear and apple trees dotted all over the property, as well as a couple of walnut and pecan trees, one of which almost literally killed me, but not for the reason you might imagine. That’s a story for another day. My cousin Jimmy and I both narrowly avoided being blinded near there, which is also a story for another day. My family lived in two trailers and a very small house on the property.
I don’t remember how we ended up in the jon boat sitting in the grass near the trees in front of Goldie’s garage building. It was there for a while, so you had to careful about jumping into it without inspection. Otherwise, you might find yourself jumping right back out with a snake or other critter attached to you.
My cousin Jimmy found a few large darts somewhere. Time has stolen the details about where they originated. While they weren’t the infamous lawn darts that came later, they were larger than standard throwing darts that we’ve all tossed and hit the wall accidentally with, even as we tried to conceal our errant misses.
More than once, I said, “Watch out with those darts, Jimmy!” He was younger than me. He was also was protected by a strange force field of superiority. He was almost Kevin Costner untouchable. Jimmy laughed and threw another one with even more recklessness. It thudded into the wood bottom of the boat. “Darn it, Jimmy, you better not hit me!”
Jimmy stepped several steps further back and, without pausing, launched the heavy dart high into the air, in a long parabola of unknown destination. Naturally, I did the only thing possible: I covered my head and winced. I doubt Jimmy expected me to duck.
It turns out I didn’t need to concern myself with being hit in the head with the dart.
It landed directly on the top of my foot, impaling my left foot almost all the way through. I had a Jim Carrey moment, one in which I stared at the heavy dart impaled in my foot. My brain was taking a bit of a break to process this.
Suddenly, my foot cramped.
Jimmy’s face made an absurdly round “O” as his mouth fell open, as I writed a little bit in agony.
For once, I believed he didn’t intentionally do the thing that just happened. That is what happens when you indiscriminately toss heavy darts above people’s heads, though. That’s a helpful note if you find yourself indiscriminately tossing darts high into the air around other people.
All at once, the pain of the large dart being stuck through my foot reached my brain and I screamed like someone put a firecracker in my open mouth.
Jimmy ran away, already hollering that I was beating him, when in reality I was sitting in the boat with a dart stuck in my foot. I pulled it out without thinking very long about it. It took several seconds for the hole to begin oozing blood. I did not run after him. For the time being, I didn’t care if he had season passes to Dogpatch and free ice cream for me.
After several minutes, I hobbled around the trailer on the backside and tried to go inside. “You better not get blood in here, you little sh!t,” Mom told me between puffs on her cigarette. I went back outside and around to the front of the trailer. Dad was sitting there with Uncle Buck.
My Dad, often the comedian, yelled “Bullseye!” at me. I assumed Jimmy finally admitted he threw a dart into my foot. I still didn’t see Jimmy.
Uncle Buck, in the role of a caring human being, told me to wash the wound out.
“Nonsense,” Dad opined. “Put some ash on it.” Dad unsteadily stood up and with his drunken swagger approached me. He grabbed charcoal out of the burn pile and motioned for me to approach. He smashed it in his fist and rubbed it on top of my foot. I stood perfectly still, hoping his attention would shift so that I could get away. I knew better than to flinch or cry. “Bullseye,” Dad repeated and laughed.
I hobbled away. I found Jimmy a few minutes later sitting on a low branch of one of the apple trees between Goldie’s house and the rear of the machine shop. I didn’t hit him. He was Jimmy – and Jimmy did only what Jimmy did best. I think he found it difficult to relax if I had a dart in my hand, though.
In the 90s, I worked at Cargill in Springdale. Much of the work was dehumanizing. Oddly enough, the proximity and close quarters also made it possible to interact with a wide swath of people. Despite the brutality of the job, some of us managed to make use of our shared time there. We shared jokes, insulted each other with the skill of a French sailor, and learned each other’s language. The racists lurking among us didn’t. They despised the fact that Latinos willingly applied to work the line jobs. As many faults as I had with the job, I was able at times to see the job from the viewpoint of someone who would have worked any job, even with gritted teeth, for the rest of his or her life. I was lucky to get the job. During the annual layoff at the end of the year, I signed up to work on the other side of the plant instead of drawing unemployment, with the goal of seeing what other jobs were available. It turns out, a lot were. I never returned to the Jeffrey Dahmer side of the facility.
I started on the turkey evisceration line. It is nothing like you would imagine. Unless you are imagining a bloody, violent mess, in which case, bingo! you’re right after all.
On Fridays, it was common for the supervisors to walk down the interminably long line of employees as we worked with vacuum guns, scissors, knives, and bare hands. We wore high boots, smocks, plastic aprons, and a variety of other things to make us as uncomfortable as possible. As they walked, they would go through their pile of checks and find each employee’s corresponding check and put it in our pocket. Some people would have them placed in the back of one of their boots. This was usually a strategic mistake, as the work environment was filled with water, blood, and an assortment of internal organs that shouldn’t be flying around.
Based on the moisture component, I was one of those who objected to the check being put in my boot. In my case, I didn’t care if the supervisor wanted to lift my smock and find an outside pocket to jam the check into. It didn’t threaten my fragile masculinity.
At this point, I’d like to mention that it was ludicrous that checks weren’t handed out on our hour-long break. That’s an argument for another day. Many women didn’t appreciate the check system at all, for obvious reasons.
Back to the story… some supervisors would ignore your request and jam the check into your boot despite your objections. Given that you’re standing in front of a fast-moving line filled with increasingly stripped-down recently deceased turkey carcasses, it’s hard to step away from the line.
One supervisor, in particular, was named Robert Hogg, with a double ‘g’ in his surname. For whatever reason, I loved yanking his chain. Looking back, he was comparably great as a supervisor. The fact that he didn’t hang around as long as many spoke highly of his character. Robert and I engaged in a tit-for-tat game of oneupmanship about many things. One thing I liked about him was that he could issue an edict from management and simultaneously acknowledge the absurdity of it – while letting me know I needed to do it, regardless of how stupid we agreed it was. I could respect that. I still do.
After a couple of Fridays of Robert trying to jam my check into the back of my boot, I hatched a foolproof plan…
It’s worth noting that I was prone to zaniness when I was young. I would wear mismatched shoes, my shirts inside out, or draw and paint on my clothes. Anything I could do to cause a bit of commotion or eye-rolling was something I was interested in furthering. As an example, one of my fondest memories was after we had a big meeting regarding drug use and policy. There were hundreds of us working on the evis side of the plant. I entered the bathroom and opened 4 or 5 packets of sugar alternative. I wiped it all over my top lip and across my nose. As I exited, one of my conspirators literally screamed, “Hey, you have something under your nose!” Naturally, about half the heads in the breakroom turned to look at me, some managers included. I pretended to be caught off guard and wiped crazily at my nose and sniffed loudly. After an awkward pause, most of the breakroom laughed. “I picked a bad week to stop snorting cocaine,” I said. (One of the managers took the time later to seriously inform me that while he thought it was a great prank, that I should take appearances into consideration before doing anything similar in the future. “Have you seen my face? I asked him. My question didn’t help, now that I think about it.)
Before the next Friday, I went to a flea market and bought some pants and then a variety of safety pins. I cut the pockets off the pants and then sewed all the pockets closed. During our first break, I cut my boots down to ankle height with a pair of scissors.
After our first break, Robert steadily went down the line, inserting paychecks. As he neared, it was difficult for me to keep a straight face.
Robert lifted my smock and started to put my check into my boot. Which weren’t there. Rather, they were cut too low to put anything there. He then pulled my smock higher to expose my pockets.
“What the…” he started to say.
He looked around the sides and noted I didn’t have pockets at all. Finally, it dawned on him that my pants were inside out. I had used safety pins to create belt loops to hold my belt (and pants) up while I worked.
Robert laughed for several seconds.
“Okay, you got me!”
It’s still a victory I count as one of my fondest.
P.S. When this ID card was printed, I only had 1 legal name, like Cher or Madonna. People often called me other names, ones unbecoming for polite society.