A lot of my childhood, I do not remember anymore.
We lived in a small, three-bedroom, frame house on a corner lot in a tidy, new subdivision on the northwest side of Houston, Texas, not far from the railroad tracks and a branch of Buffalo Bayou. I can remember being in my bed at night, listening to the train whistles blow through the still night air.
I was the oldest child, followed by my sister and then my brother. We were fairly happy kids, as I recall, playing outside after school and all day long on the weekends with the other neighborhood kids: hide-n-go-seek, tag, chase, football in the street, baseball in someone’s front yard or down at the park a block away, riding bicycles, skateboards, roller skating up and down the sidewalk, flagging down the jingle-jangling ice cream truck.
Your basic all-American stuff.
When it started getting dark, it was time to go home. Sometimes, we’d hear a loud, long whistle from dad’s pursed lips, and that meant it was time to get home – now.
Discipline was harsh in our house; hugs and kisses were non-existent.
There was no such thing as time-out, or grounding, or taking away privileges in those days. Hell, there was no negotiation, no argument, no talking back. Are you kidding?
When you broke a rule or did something stupid, punishment was swift, and came at the end of a leather belt. Lay across the side of mom and dad’s bed, and take a series of wallops on the backside. Try and block or dodge those stinging blows, and they might land on another part of the anatomy. Often did.
My little brother usually got the worst of it. I remember listening to him crying, “That’s enough! That’s enough!” while I counted the number of times he got hit, over and over and over. The counting continued well into the twenties, always. This happened a lot. Daily sometimes.
If that sort of thing were happening today, my mother especially would have been arrested for child abuse.
But that was the world we lived in, and whippings were not unusual. It was a common sight, for instance, to see the kid right next door, Dennis, come busting out the front screen door of his house, hands covering his rear end, crying “No, no, no,” with his mom in hot pursuit, brandishing a switch pulled from a tree in the yard and chasing him down the sidewalk for a little corporal punishment.
I also remember Dennis taking dumps in the flower beds in front of his house. Turds in the dirt. Not sure if those switchings had anything to do with the poor kid crapping outside all the time, but it kind of seems like there might be a connection.
At school, there was paddling, as well. In third grade, the teacher was a big woman who laid you across her lap and spanked you with her hand, in front of the whole class. In junior high and high school, coaches lined up the athletes on report card day and gave swats with a wooden board for bad grades. A trip to the principal’s office often resulted in at least one painful pop on the butt.
When I was a senior, I was tardy to my first period class every day. After the tardies reached the magic number – I don’t remember now what that number was – my teacher, Mr. Watts, offered me the choice of going to the office, or taking a swat from him.
It was pretty much six of one or a half-dozen of the other, so I chose the swat. I’d come to class late, Mr. Watts – a very nice man and respected teacher for whom I hold not one iota of ill will – would grab his board from a desk drawer, and we’d go out into the hallway, over to the stairwell, conveniently a short distance away. This is how it was done in those days.
We would walk down to the staircase, where I’d bend over and touch the first or second step with my fingertips, and … boom! The paddle connected, the sound echoed off the walls, and then it was back to class, me pretending it was not that bad; my butt cheeks burning for a few minutes.
Like I said, that was normal stuff, and nothing that scarred me for life. That’s the way it was back in the day.
What did scar me for life was the lack of love and affection inside my house.
From the outside, I’m sure ours seemed like the all-American little family, but inside was a different story. I rarely saw either one of my parents show any affection toward the other. They never sat on the sofa together, talking, laughing, holding hands. I never walked in on them hugging and kissing in the kitchen, or anywhere else. Never heard one say “I love you” to the other. The only time I ever saw them even touch each other was when the old man left for work in the morning. Mama would follow him to the front door, where he turned around and gave her the perfunctory peck on the lips.
Unfortunately, that lack of overt affection also extended to the children.
We were not a huggy-kissy family, to say the least.
For some reason, even though I don’t really remember my mother ever telling me she loved me when I was a kid, somehow I knew she did. Maybe simply because she was my mother, she took care of me, and I felt safe around her. I don’t know. She had her own issues – one of which I found out later was being trapped in an unhappy marriage – but she liked to have fun, and she was a good mom. She did not work outside the home for a long time, but when she could scrape enough money together, she’d take us to the movies, bowling, across town to visit her sister, and to spend weekends and holidays at my grandparents’ house in the piney east Texas woods surrounding Sam Rayburn lake.
My mother liked to bake, and I remember every year making Christmas cookies, rolling out sheets of homemade dough on flour-dusted wax paper, cutting out various shapes like candy canes, stars, reindeer, Santa Clauses. Using an old-fashioned pastry bag to squeeze out sweet, sugary icing after the cookies were baked and cooled, then adding sprinkles, red hot candies, and other decorations.
At my mother’s funeral, I mentioned how she taught me to make a cherry pie, my all-time favorite, completely from scratch. Same thing with cakes, although my job with cakes was usually to lick the mixing bowl and, hopefully, at least one beater after the cake batter was poured into the pan.
I never doubted my mother’s love.
My father, on the other hand, was a completely different story.
Dad was a provider. He was head of the family, earned the money, controlled the purse strings, and ruled with an iron fist. His word was law, and there was no disputing it. In his world, kids were meant to be seen and not heard – literally. That’s the way it was. To argue with him, or even attempt to talk back, was unheard of in our family. He was, to say the least, not very approachable.
I do remember him telling me he loved me, but that was when I was twenty-six years old, married with a child of my own, and by then, I really didn’t want to hear it.
Let me explain.
We were standing in my second-floor apartment, rays of the setting sun streaming through the living room window – my parents were divorced by then – and my dad was handing me a check to help with my first semester’s tuition at the University of Houston, which back then was a couple of hundred bucks or something. I had decided to go back to school, and he said he wanted to help out.
Back when I was a senior in high school, he told me one time that he would pay for my college, but I had to continue to live at home while I went. That was not an attractive offer. But now, he wanted to keep his part of the bargain.
As my old man started to leave, he suddenly stepped forward, put his arms around me and said, “I love you.”
Tears and a warm father-and-son embrace as I finally heard, at long last, the words I’d waited for all my life?
I froze, with my arms down at my sides and just stood there.
Really, it kind of pissed me off. All I could think was, “Where in the hell was this when I was ten or eleven years old?”
Sure, my old man did a lot of things for me when I was a kid, like taking me to the hardware store for lumber to build a cool set of wooden stilts that were so tall you had to prop them up against the side of the house and climb up to start walking, installing a regulation-height basketball goal out alongside the driveway, building a red-dirt pitching mound and home plate in the backyard, signing me up for Little League, and even coaching some of my teams.
I didn’t understand at the time that was his way of telling me – showing me – that he loved me. A hug, or even a pat on the back once in a while, sure would have been nice.
A kid needs to hear the words.
I remember my first year in peewee football, my very first practice. I was eight years old, and I’m sure there was calisthenics, running, tackling practice and such, but the thing I will never forget about my first-ever football practice is the scrimmage at the end.
I have no idea how they sorted things out, but I think basically it was ‘A Team’ offense, which included the players from the year before who knew what they were doing, against everybody else.
That’s how it was back in the day. They wanted to see who had a natural instinct for the game, and who did not. Which ones didn’t mind sticking their head in there and making some contact.
For whatever reason, they lined me up at left defensive end, and it might have been the first play, but I’ll never forget – a kid named Steve, one of the veterans and an incredible athlete, took a handoff from the quarterback and headed straight up the middle. This kid was fast and tough, both arms wrapped around the football, knees driving hard, and he appeared to have clear sailing through everybody, until I ran across and launched myself horizontally into his right side, wrapped my arms around his waist and flattened him.
I didn’t think much about it – that was what they told me to do, after all – but when I went back to my position and knelt down to get ready for the next play, a couple of the coaches came over with big smiles on their faces and slapped me on the helmet a couple of times, told me way to go, way to hit, stuff like that.
My old man was there, but never said anything. Not even later, on the way home.
When I was eleven, I wanted more than anything in the world to make the Little League all-star baseball team. My dad was a coach in our league, and so he went to the meeting where all the coaches picked the players who would be on the team.
I was already in bed when he got home from the meeting, and I heard him call me into the dining room. He was sitting in a chair, my mother was standing nearby in the kitchen, and I walked over and stood in front of him, and he said, “You didn’t make it.”
That was it. You didn’t make it. Nothing like, “You did a great job this year, son, and I think you should have made it. I’m really proud of you.” Maybe a hug, as well. A handshake. Something.
Nope. Not my old man. I stood there in my Fruit of the Looms, tears rolling down my face, and he told me to go back to bed.
A year later, I did in fact make the all-star team, but that dream come true proved to be the beginning of the end to our relationship for a long time. I’ll tell that story later.
It wasn’t until I was somewhere in my forties that my dad told me he was proud of me, and even then, he apparently couldn’t spit out the actual words, so he typed them up in a letter. As was the case with the hug and the “I love you” years before, I was not overly impressed.
So, I grew up in an emotionally stilted environment. Our family never talked about much of anything, but especially not about feelings.
My sister told me once after we were grown that she went to our dad one time about a problem she was having – those two were always very close – and his advice to her was this: “Well, don’t feel that way.”
Simple. Problem solved. Feeling bad? Hurt, anxious, afraid, angry, sad? The solution is simple.
Just don’t feel that way.
To this day, I have a hard time understanding my emotions. Basically, I know that I either feel bad or I feel good. That’s about it. Ask me to explain why I feel a certain way, try to get to the root of the problem, and I have a really hard time. Usually, I can’t do it. I don’t have a clue.