Wednesday, September 5, 2012
Beatings will continue
until the moral improves.
(Found on my department head's door,
the first day of my teaching career)
So hot. And why exactly had we left the beach, returned to this godforsaken valley with its smog, fog, barking dogs, and neighbors we barely talk to?
And look at that. Just look at it.
Peaches, both floating and still, depending on whether the culprit achieved the target or not bobbed in and around our swimming pool. All from an out of control peach tree that straddled the corner of our lot.
Who had thrown them? Three households of children had access to those peaches. But I didn't care. I was mad. After coming back from the pristine coast, this is what I absolutely did not want to see and now would no longer tolerate. Fruit had been sporadically lobbed at us by unknown assailants for several months and I was ready to take action.
I decided to speak to all three of the parents whose houses adjoined the neglected peach tree. "That's it," I told my wife. "I'm going to each of their houses and talking to the parents."
Then just as I was about to leave, having carefully planned my accusations, she handed me a battered peach. "I saw the girl on the high dive at the blue house just as she was throwing this into the pool. She looked me straight in the eye and she knew I saw her throw it."
Target acquired, the malefactor exposed. I picked up a bag of recently gathered peaches and marched around to the house, to meet what actually seemed to be a very nice family as far as I knew. The father of this familly had helped me repair the fence boards that both of our dogs had rambunctiously destroyed.
I knocked forcefully.
A teenage girl, maybe 15, answered behind a chain locked door.
"I'm your neighbor, and I would like to speak to your parents."
"They're not here now."
Considering that meant several children were swimming unsupervised in the back yard, I suspected evasion--like when a teacher calls home, a child recognizes your voice and lies his or her head off about the presence of a parent.
So I asked, "When will they be back?" in a slightly louder voice.
"In about a half hour." I told her I would certainly return later and skulked off with my bag of rotten fruit.
Back at the house, I unpacked my bags, wishing I was still in San Simeon, more than a little pissed at having to keep my steam up until the parents came home. But thirty minutes later, almost to the minute, the doorbell rang. Said father, the same nice guy I mentioned before, stood before me. All 6 foot 5 or more of him. But I'm no longer afraid of bigger people. And if things went south, it wouldn't be the first time I've had the crap kicked out of me.
He had two girls with him, both about the age of ten.
"I understand you've had some trouble with peaches in your pool."
"Yes," I said and gleefully went to retrieve the bag of fruit I had gathered, including one very soggy peach which I preserved on a paper towel because it was our most recent and wettest piece of evidence. Holding the towel up, I continued, "In fact, my wife witnessed this one being being thrown over and into our pool by a dark haired girl, probably the one I see on my left. Both girls were now dressed up in skirts. Quite impressive really, not jeans, not shorts. Perhaps they understood the gravity of this situation, I told myself.
"But I didn't throw all the peaches," said the one I had identified with all the certainty of having seen her in a police line-up. At that point, the slightly younger girl on my right looked straight down at her sandled feet.
"Well, I just want you to know," I said, "that throwing this kind of stuff into a pool could cause some expensive damage--or worse yet, it might hit someone in my family and hurt them."
I was surprised at what happened next, emotionally ambushed actually. Both of the girls gradually and sincerely murmured their apologies. Okay, whatever, but afterwards they started to sob uncontrollably. I didn't know what to doe. If felt my breath sucking and babbled something about "Well, everybody makes mistakes."
And the whole thing hit me like a ton of bricks. These two wonderful, basically innocent girls would never forget this horrible moment (that I had indirectly created) and might always feel awful about it. I heard their father's voice in the background of my mind, assuring me that these his two young children would be grounded from the pool for several weeks. I think he went on to mention some other punishment but I really can't remember at the moment.
That's when I laughed. I didn't mean to. And it was more of a quiet chuckle anyway. Afterwards, I tried to pull myself together. Forcing myself to make direct eye contact with the father I said, "Thank you so much for coming by."
And I closed the door quickly. Freakin' bizarre, I know. But if I hadn't let air out of my throat at that exact moment, never intending it to come out as a laugh, their would have been three people bawling on my front porch and I would have certainly been the loudest of the three. What would that weird display of emotion have taught those girls: all adults are hopelessly strange?
Was there a better way I could have handled this?
My wife, who had almost made it to the door before it slammed hard nevertheless heard every word and admitted that she too was about to cry--which made me feel a little less like a hopelessly emotional geezer. Perhaps it was because I had only raised boys, I thought to myself, a subset of the human race that never, ever cries and always shrugs everything off, even when confronted with obvious proof of their guilt.
Anyway, I felt horrible. Guilty as the girls. I got on the computer, wrote down what I could remember about the last few minutes, and thought about the time several of my childhood friends collected peaches from a local orchard. We spread them in a double-lined, across the road leading to our housing development. It was so cool. We climbed out on the branch of an oak tree and looked down on the mayhem as cars smashed through our double barrier of peaches.
God, this was fun.
Then a familiar car approached. It was my father's fishing buddy and coworker, Albert Rodriguez.
He got out of the car and examined the mess. His wife also got out of the car.
"Al, did we hit some poor doggie?"
"No, honey, they're just peaches."
On the oak branch almost directly above them, we laughed hysterically. We closed and covered our mouths but shook so hard that it's a wonder that all of us did not fall out of the tree. This was gnarly, truly bitchin'. The most fun we three boys, Bruce, his brother Mark ever had.
But then there's always a price to be paid for that kind of fun.
A compact car, a green Hillman to be exact (anybody remember those?) drove up the street and the same thing happened: "Squish, Squish" followed by the sound of breaks, and a man getting out. Even before the car door opened, I knew all too well who drove that car: Robert Joseph Richardson, Bobby to his friends and his wife--my mother.
And I got the shakes, bad shakes, scary sensations that told me writhing snakes were uncontrollably sliding around in my stomach. My mother was half way out of the car, when I heard my father call back to her, "Don't even bother getting out Pearl. Bunch of stupid kids must have put peaches on the road. Some kind of dumb-assed prank."
Then he looked up, through glasses that barely corrected his stigmatised eyes, eyes that had been perfect until a childgood bout with diphtheria, eyes that had almost beaten a semi-professional boxer before they closed when he backed up hard against a stop sign. Eyes that now looked up at the branch where the three of us sat in absolute darkness and turned and now turned directly upon ME. And to this day I still don't understand how he knew I was there--did those same eyes have some sort of x-ray vision, able to sense fear, see my sweat?
"Johnny, is that you up there?"
"Y-yes, Dad," I whimpered.
"Get on down from that tree and head back to the house right now, you hear me?" He walked back to the car but right before he got in, he stopped and turned those lethal eyes back upon me and imparted his certain justice: "And get ready for a beating."
Now this was back in the days when corporal punishment was not only common but entirely accepted. My friends knew what lay ahead for me and offered little in the way consolation. They knew my father, and that he would certainly stop two doors down short of our house and bring their own father up to date on our criminal misdeeds.
Shared doom was the gist of our conversation and bonded us tightly as we approached our certain but separate dooms. We speculated as to who would suffer the most and in what terrible ways. Apparently, their father had a predilection for a "switch" an instrument of correction with which I was not yet familiar. Apparently it was small, carefully trimmed branch from a particular tree that grew steadfastly in their back yard. But it's hard to feel sorry for someone else's fate when you suspect yours will be worse while at the same time hoping that you will not soon be puking right in front of your friends.
And all the while we walked, and walked, in the slowest pace possible without actually running in the opposite direction. Eventually, Mark and Bruce said our final godbyes and it was it time to open the door of my house. My father was in his chair, the chair we never sat in, the one reserved only for him, the chair of parental judgement.
"Yes, Dad," I managed to croak out through a closed- down throat.
"Get me my belt."
"Oh, Dad I'm sorry, really, really never meant to..."
"Doesn't matter. Get me my belt, now, the skinny one."
Oh, dear God, not the skinny one! Spankings weren't that common and even now I wouldn't consider the ones I truly deserved to be especially abusive. But, now had to retrieve that heinous narrow belt the one he seldom wore except on the rare occasions we went to church.
Then I began to sob and sob, just like the poor little girls on my doorstep a while ago. Each step toward my parents bedroom and the closet containing the instrument of terror, was an absolute eternity. Fear, dread, and the prospect of a new level of agony consumed my entire being. By the time I actually found the requested belt and staggered back toward the living room, I was falling on the floor, groveling, slobbering and abjectyly begging my father to please, please understand how sorry I was (a disgusting image, I know, but I never claimed to be a brave little trooper).
Then the punishment began. Just two quick slaps of the narrow belt, half hearted actually, and I didn't even have to pull my pants down for the full effect. But I suffered. Sweet Jesus, had I suffered! Sometimes I wonder if my father didn't know more about torture than the CIA. Though his light-weight strokes were mild compared to the socially accepted thrashings of the day, he was light years ahead of water boarding, having mastered the fine nuances of psychological pain. That long walk down the hallway and back stripped me of all arrogance and any desire to "cut up" for a good long time.
I have no particular memories of punishment beyond that point. That is, until I turned 18. Little did I know that my father had used all those years to plan his most diabolical punishment.
My parents had left town for the weekend. Great. By some incredible luck (or misfortune) my awkward 18 year old body had attracted the attention of 21 year old goddess, a woman I told myself who was experienced in the ways of the world. More importantly, she was able to buy me booze. And she did. In vast quantities. One Sunday morning I left her apartment, a slightly hung over but very satiated young man, happy as the day was bright. I remember fiddling with the radio dials on my mother's Chevy Impala, with its incredible stock acoustics just as the speakers were delivering the first sweet rifts of "Judy Blue Eyes."
I looked up, bewildered at what I was seeing in an age where nobody had ever heard the term "distracted driving." How had the signal become red and why was I entering an intersection which could never had come up so soon? A car had already entered the intersection from my right. It was hopeless. In the final seconds before impact I remember seeing a nice looking woman's mouth and face stretched into to a "rictus of terror" (phrase admittedly borrowed from a Stephen King novel).
Then I remember veering to the right at the last moment, barely managing to hit only the back end of her car. Everything starting spinning. If any unfortunate pedestrians had been standing at either of the right hand corners of that intersection, they would have learned a painful lessons about physics--either that, or died in short order.
I don't remember too much after that. The police arrived at some point. Thank God the woman was okay and we were both able to drive our vehicles away from the scene of the accident. But I had destroyed my mother's car, totaled it by even the most lenient standards of insurance evaluation.
And I had eight hours to go until my parents arrived home. There would be pain. Maybe not a spanking, I knew that wouldn't happen at my age, but definitely something worse, much worse. Would they force me to break up with the older girlfriend that they never liked? Probably. Would I be banned from ever again using the family car? That was as certain as the fact that my dating life was over. Forever. Maybe they would even force me to get another part time job so I could pay off the damages, year after year and year after year... forever.
But what transpired was worse than I ever would have imagined. Right on time, my father's truck drove up into the driveway heading for the garage. He saw the car and slammed on the breaks (nice that the left hand side which had sustained all the damage--front panel squashed, driver's door overlapping the rear passenger door, everything hopeless and immediately on display). My mother got out, took a quick look, sucked in a bunch of air and finally announced her profound disappointment in me as a human being.
"I'm so sorry, Mom" I said, but she was already rushing into the house.
My father walked around the car and examined it slowly, analytically, saying absolutely nothing. Meanwhile I babbled, explaining how I was coming back from my taboo girlfriend's apartment at 8:00 am (because I didn't want to take the chance that they would come home early). I admitted how I had been playing with the radio, not paying attention, and how lucky I was that my inattention hadn't hurt or killed anyone. Without a word he, too, went into the house.
I sat down on the porch, my life over before the age of 21, knowing that the worst was yet to come. After a half hour or so, I went inside to face the music. The house was silent except for the murmurs I heard when I crept down the hall toward my parent's bedroom. Obviously, they were planning some hideous fate, one that I totally deserved. Back in my own bedroom, I waited. Maybe I even slept an hour or so out of sheer mental exhaustion.
Then I woke up and gradually got the nerve to leave my room. There he was, my father in the living room, sitting in the special off-limits parental chair, albeit a newer model since the peaches episode. He said nothing. I sat down on the couch and waited until I could no longer stand it.
"What are you going to do, Dad?"
"About me, because I wrecked Mom' car."
"Nothing... Nothing? What do you mean nothing?"
He paused a long time before answering. My mind went wild. Certainly, it wouldn't be a belt spanking--which I knew he still had but hoped I was way too old for. It would be something worse, way, way worse."
"You know you made a mistake, Johnny, and you admitted it."
"Yeah... and now you're going to punish me."
"Because I screwed up, I really screwed up bad and now Mom doesn't have a car to get to work."
"She can ride with her friends from work. And tomorrow, I'm going to talk to Harold next door and see about getting some parts from the junk yard to fix the car."
"But what about me, what are you going to do about me, what I did?"
He smiled, actually might have chuckled, I'm not sure: "Here's the way I see it, Johnny. You've spent the better part of the day hating yourself because of a mistake that could happen to anyone, worrying about what would happen when we got home. You said you were sorry and so I figure you've been punished enough already.
I was shocked, dumbfounded, and profoundly disappointed. I needed a beating. I wanted to find that skinny belt--or something worse--and have my proper anguish. But he wouldn't give it to me! I was angry. This was the cruelest beating of all. What happened to the man who could easily rob me of dignity just by mentioning that stupid, skinny belt?
But I got over my anger and eventually came to appreciate my father's calculated wisdom.
I'm going to bed soon. This story went longer than I expected and is no doubt filled with countess embarrassing errors. It should've stopped with me slamming the door before I started to cry with the girls.
But I wish I knew those girls better, the ones who had fun throwing stuff into our back yard. I fantasize about tomorrow. I will be clipping the hedges along the side of my house, when the girls come along on their way to school. I casually look up from my gardening and say, "It's okay girls. Your father did what he thought best. Someday you'll understand that this was his way of showing you how much he loved you. Maybe you'll even share a chuckle or two recalling your peach throwing episode sometime in the future (not that I would actually do this, too creepy, and the two little girls would have no idea what I was talking about).
It might be a long time until I enjoy peaches again. And as for punishment, whether corporal or devilishly clever, I still haven't made up my my mind whether either is a good idea. Talk to my two boys, who have grown up to become men that I greatly admire. I'm sure they have some interesting stories to tell.
And if you do, be sure to tell them that I love them and tried to do my best.