In other installments of my blog, I have discussed some difficult aspects of my childhood. And by “difficult”, I mean deeply traumatic.
At the heart of my childhood was domestic violence. During rages that were unpredictable and intense, my father would bellow and hit his children. If my mother intervened, it got worse…for everybody. And then, the storm passed, and in the days that followed, Dad would be intensely quiet and remorseful. While the exact details aren’t today’s topic, redemption is.
I have written about how–unlike my siblings and my mother–I tried to understand my father and how I pitied him for his loneliness and isolation. I felt then that it was my job to try to understand what made my father the way he was. It was a daunting and scary task.
First and foremost, my father was a man of extremes and contradictions. Never, for one moment, did I feel he was emotionally detached. Quite the opposite. I found my father’s behavior was one of extreme attachment.
His emotional outbursts were unpredictable, but, as a rule, the outbursts usually involved money or his family’s security. Dad was very tribal, and, by that, I mean there was HIS family and then there were a bunch of OTHERS.
One summer, the City of Warren experienced a rash of child abductions. My baby brother was six years old, playing in the driveway. I was a few houses down the street. A strange car pulled up to the front of our home. A man inside tried to lure Mark into the car. The man leaned over and pushed open the front passenger door of his gold-colored Chevelle. Mark took a step closer to the stranger’s car. I ran toward the car, screaming at Mark, “No!!!” My father heard the screaming and ran outside. The car screeched away. I held Mark in my arms and sobbed. Mark started crying. I told Dad what happened and described the car. My Dad went into the house, grabbed his .45 and peeled off in his car. Dad searched for the perpetrator’s car for two hours, driving all over Warren. He stopped people, questioned them and kept going. I have no doubt in my mind that my father would have killed the man who tried to kidnap my brother. No doubt at all.
In another incident, a neighbor’s son “Tony” got into a fight with my brother, George. Tony’s father, who was “Tony Sr.” or “Mr. Tony”, liked to brag that he was in the mafia and would occasionally show kids his gun and shoulder holster. Mr. Tony walked up to the entrance of our garage where Dad and I were working on an orange Chevy Vega, replacing the clutch. I was eight years old. Mr. Tony complained loudly that George, my brother, had beaten up his son. The discussion quickly became heated. Neighbors started to notice the commotion. Dad was easily six inches taller and a 100 lbs bigger than Mr. Tony. Feeling more than a little “disrespected” by my father’s attitude, Mr. Tony pulled back his suit jacket slightly and indicated that he would come back and shoot my father if something happened again. Instead of yelling, my father’s voice dropped to a deadly whisper. My father’s exact words “Tony, you’d better pull that gun out right now and shoot me, because I’m about to shove it up your ass and pull the trigger.” We never saw Mr. Tony after that. He moved away.
I have dozens of stories where my father’s tribal instincts to protect his family led to hilarious and not-so-hilarious results. We developed a saying in my home: “Dad is great in an emergency.” For whatever reason, Dad would become calm under fire.
In 10th grade, Leonard Draving, my science teacher, accused me of cheating on a final exam. It was/is the only time anybody had accused me of cheating at anything. I was emotionally destroyed. Mr. Draving had been one of my favorite teachers. Moreover, he was a very passionate and talented teacher. Unfortunately, he was also very rigid and had odd quirks. Mr. Draving frequently lectured us about how the “black squirrels” were taking over the trees in his neighborhood. He would then launch into a discussion about how much he hated “black squirrels”. Most of us didn’t mind these diversions. They were usually followed with something interesting and germane to the subject of the class. Still, his obsession with rules and “black squirrels” bordered on obsessive.
Getting back to the final exam…
I had been talking to one of my friends near the end of the test, but it wasn’t about the exam. It was the last test of the semester, and we were about to be free for several weeks. My friend was done with his test. I was still doing mine. Mr. Draving saw me talking and exploded, “Give me your test!” He grabbed it from me and accused me of cheating in front of the entire class. Humilitated, I went home to tell my parents. I expected my father to hit me. He didn’t.
The next day, my mother and father had an appointment with the principal, Gene Miller, and Mr. Draving to discuss the accusation of cheating. I sat between my parents as the adults in the room discussed my fate.
My father listened intently, with his head tilted backwards looking down his nose, as Mr. Draving passionately explained that I was talking during the exam and that I MUST have been cheating. He explained that it was a RULE that you could only talk AFTER you turned in your exam; otherwise, Mr. Draving would be forced to presume that the “talker” was cheating. My mother was furious that her son was accused of cheating (and from past experiences, she strongly disliked Gene Miller). My father, in the same deadly whisper he used with Mr. Tony, said, “You think my son cheated? Give him the test again. He’ll pass your test.” Draving wanted me to fail the ENTIRE course. This was NOT his plan. Draving sputtered, “Well, I am going to have to make up a NEW test specially for him.” Dad said, “I know you’re going to try to fail my son, but he’s still going to pass your fucking test.” My father’s profanity, the situation, my mouth hanging open, all of it combined into several pregnant moments of shocked silence. Draving looked angrily to the principal, Gene Miller, who shrugged (as he always did during difficult conversations) and said, “Mr. Draving will give Stephen a new test tomorrow at 11am in Mr. Draving’s classroom.”
I went to the classroom. I was alone with Mr. Draving. He handed me an eight page exam that was EVERYTHING he taught that semester, plus EVERYTHING in the textbook (even though he only presented 70% in the class). I churned away on it. Mr. Draving announced that the hour was up. He took the test from me and graded it on the spot. He took out his red pen. He marked a few answers with a small “x” but without any other elaboration. He handed it back. It said “B” on the top of the paper. Through some magical number theory I still got a “C” in his class, but I let it go.
When my father got my report card, he smiled at the “C”. We went out that afternoon, and he bought me parts for a Suzuki motorcycle we rebuilt together. As we were elbow deep in the grease of the machine, he looked up and said, “I knew you would pass. I love you.”
And so started a long, slow road we traveled together.