“Bring up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” At least, I think that was the reasoning behind my father’s rather harsh methods of punishment. That one and of course the old standby, “Spare the Rod and spoil the child.” God knows I heard that particular phrase enough growing up. He was a heavy handed father, dishing out whippings with his favorite belt for a long time, then graduating to the use of switches, boards, and whatever else he could find in close proximity. He finally graduated to a handmade paddle with holes strategically placed on it. He had no greater fun, I think, that popping that favorite leather strap or paddle on his way to punish someone, usually me.
I never dodged the punishments, never lied about my actions, (provided I got caught, of course). It just seemed normal, and I’ll never really forget it. For one thing, I’ll never listen to the popping of a belt and feel anything but a current of anger chatter up my spine, resting in the back of my teeth as I prepared not to cry. No matter how hard I had it, I did manage to cover for my younger siblings, especially when Dad was on the warpath. His temper was swift and judgment was complete, but his temper would be satiated.
Things were different with my Mother. She was a big proponent of matching the punishment to the crime in fairness and equitability, but she also had no illusions: She had seven children, one of which suffered from a life disability that required almost constant care. The rest, four boys and two girls, extremely intelligent souls that required a lot of cautious guidance. One slip, and her authority would melt a little.
But we all loved Mom as fiercely as we loved our father in spite of his outbursts. Personally, I would have been angry too, the sole proprietor of that many mouths to feed, rapidly growing teenage frames to cloth and feed!
Did you know a normal teenage boy can eat a carton of eggs at on sitting? Or a box of cereal and a half-gallon of milk before they go to bed, then move through the darkness of the home at night like frat boys that have heard that there is the potential, the possibility, the faintest of hopes that there is a naked pillow fight between all the hot girls. The ugly ones were keeping score. In my house the leftover fried chicken was trying to hide behind a bowl of pudding and be as still as possible, knowing that the hungry fingers were going to find him anyway, no matter where he hid.
We always thought we were getting away with our midnight fridge raids, until we encountered my Dad, clad only in his tightie-whities, scratching his butt and yawning while digging through the fridge for the same thing we were looking for. We were ordered to bed with no breakfast the next morning.
Geographically, we lived on the eroded plateau of the Appalachia Mountains, where coal was king and drugs still had another 20 years before they locked down the area and reduced what were once a very proud and hard-working, self-sufficient group of people into food-stamp steeling, theft, drug trafficking and finally addiction on a grand scale. There was barely anyone who didn’t get burned in that initial wave of almost free money.
This was before that. Before that, the people in the area I grew up in were very proud, very self-sufficient and if they had one vice, it was either politics or religion. Or both. Everyone it seemed was split into different factions and almost cults supporting which parts of the Bible should be held literal and which ones were just suggestions. I know my Mom would have likely stoned any one of us at any time if that were the law, but I really can’t see her offering up one of us as a blood sacrifice to appease an angry God. As the first born son, I kept track of the way the wind was blowing on that particular issue. You just never know when some stray evangelist, looking for a handout, a bed, preferably already occupied by a teen virgin, as she would never tell, it was “Like an angel” she would say with her tanned hands bearing the cheap zirconium stone he had bought on his first day out of the big house in Pittsburgh. Of course, the stone would disappear just as quickly as his past caught him, which in those days of little communication beyond word of mouth, he could, would, and did ride those situations for all they were worth.
So there you have it. I was born into a Pentecostal-Holiness Home and Church, where my Dad was an assistant pastor, Sunday School Teacher, occasional leader of a on the fly revival, which used to be a big deal. All you had to do was declare a vision from God showing the end of time, or piece some symbolism together from the teachings of Jesus and the “Eye-for-an-Eye” Old Testament laws and you had all the material for fueling a quick four or five days of beefing your congregation numbers up, especially if there was a world crisis (always) or some crooked coal operator needing to launder some money (most of the time).
World damnation, tracts with vivid depictions of barely dressed (by our standards at least) beauties with the barest of sins would be dragged down to hell in a scene bearing more than a passing resemblance of Dawn of the Dead. These tracts probably didn’t work at all in their intended capacity, given that they were often left in bathroom stalls, sinks and table side night stands in Red Roof Inns.
Needless to say, by the time I was around ten or so, I had seriously started to doubt the validity of all this shit. I spent house talking to God, no response. I would ask my Dad “Why will God not speak to me? He talks to you?” He would think very carefully, as this was a very legitimate question and respond with a standard one-liner. “You aren’t listening carefully enough son.” Or, “You have sin in your heart. God will not enter a dirty vessel.”
I then dried out my ears as best I could, had Mom check them for waxy buildup (I really just liked for her to rub my head) and took a long bath reading one of the tracks that featured the whore that dropped the scarlet rope over the wall of Jericho (revealing a lot of penciled in cleavage) so her brothel wouldn’t fall down with the rest of the city. The story gets a little fuzzy about that, with lots of cubits, gopher wood, burning bushes and King David, who was clearly and ghoulish in nature as the man literally killed more people than Genghis Khan and had a concubine of some sort in nearly every village he passed, male or female. You could think of him as an equality based kind of guy. He was beloved by God! The Bible makes sure to mention that over and over, as if trying to cover for a child who is, though no real fault of their own, batshit crazy. (We’re so sorry that little David killed your big dude with a rock, we were totally going to just trade some shit until that happened and well, after that I had sex with your wife. Sorry about that.)
But, David talked to God, right? It says so, right there, right in the bible, that sacred text of the Christians who believe that there is no lie in the history and timelines of the narrative, this whole thing, civilization, happened exactly as the Bible says. If you cross your eyes and read it from across the room with a lot of imagination, I can see their point, those that believe that.
I’m more a hands-on guy. Faith is believing without seeing, blah, blah, blah. I don’t have very much faith. If I’m buying a used car from a guy in a field in Kentucky, you better believe I want to hear it run, and drive it before any negotiations start. Since I am in Kentucky, I’ll also be packing heat, not a prayer. Bullets seem to fly faster than prayer.
Fast forward in time with me about thirty years. I’d had tons of fun and endless adventures, great friends, a wonderful wife who put up with my writing problem, but not the drinking one. For her sake, and for our unborn child’s sake I was as broken as a man could possibly be. I was well into the third days of Delirium Tremors, the part where you start to hallucinate, run terrible fevers, shake so badly you can’t feed yourself, don’t know where you are, who you are or how you got there.
I had recovered enough to know who I was and why I was there, but at that point I wasn’t sure it was worth it, that the pain would never stop, would just get worse. My cellmate had sleep apnea and severe drug addiction problems, so he just kind of woke up when it was time to eat, waited until his name was not called to be released and went back to bed.
Me? I wanted out. Badly. The doctors unanimously agreed that I would die. One particular Indian, I think his name was Hisar or something like that would shake his finger at me from side to side in perfect time with bobbing his head in disapproval. “This one? He will not live…ONE YEAR!” He always made the announcement as though he had found something that was invisible to the rest of the world, a truth that only he could see.
That night I convulsed so hard I fell out of the bed and simply didn’t have the strength to get back in it. I crawled, my trail of misery traced on the hard green tile floor by splashes of blood, gushing from my nose and mouth from dry heaving for hours. I didn’t know exactly where I was, I dimly remembered checking myself in, and I was pretty certain my wife had left me with our son, which would have probably been a good play with all the facts at that point laying out like playing cards in the Nevada Desert – You could read them really well. They didn’t have good news.
I curled around the pain in the floor of the doorless bathroom, and for the second time in my life, I prayed. When my grandfather became sick when I was still young I begged God to heal him, let him live, let him come back enough so that we could sit under the apple trees and he could cut apples for me, making sure the worms were out. I fasted – God didn’t listen. So, I never really tried again. If the sobs of a child losing his Grandfather won’t move a loving God to take direct action, then nothing will.
But on this day, or early morning as the sun was not quite up, I prayed. Not really for me, but for the wife and child that I was leaving behind and all that I had not accomplished. I apologized for everything I could think of, wept like a child, not in pity for myself, but for my family, who were going to have to move forward without their husband, dad, uncle, son and everyone that I had wronged by my own self-destructive ways. I wept, vomited blood everywhere, along with the stale remnants of a stale doughnut that consisted of breakfast, and I think I passed out.
The cell was occupied by two twin beds bolted to the floor. Our clothing was issued, but we could wear flip-flops if we bought them or had someone bring them in. I was still barefoot. I awake to the amusing sight of my toes, broken and mangled from repeated injuries mostly ignored during my youth. One fluorescent light was on in the room, only one. The magnetic lock on the door clicked softly from the other side, so, great, bed check time. I knew the drill. I pulled myself semi-upright and made a point to not make eye contact.
“Are you ok, honey?” “Are you warm?” “Let me check your vitals.” Her voice preceded her fluid arrival in the room. I semi closed my eyes and hoped she would forget me since my cellmate was snoring loudly enough to embarrass a Harley. But no, she came straight for me. I didn’t have a bedside lamp, yet there one was. Nurses are usually large, those that work with the dregs of humanity. They have to be. This nurse was HUGE! I’m talking NFL safety size here. She had little to say, no name tag, and oddly enough, no shoes on. I was pretty certain that was NOT regulation safety, but I kept my big mouth shut as the oddest feeling of peace threaded its way through my blackened soul. Ten years of drinking had essentially killed me. She didn’t say much, but her voice was very deep and I call her a she for lack of a better description. Had I been a member of the academic community as I was not that long ago I would have likely described her as a transgender individual. Here, in this place – I had no description. She drew blood, humming to me. What at first seemed to be humming birthed something else: My History! Very few people really know my life. I just have an unusual upbringing and life choices and I choose stories from them at my discretion, but this woman? She had an unsettling, deep south accent and perfectly white teeth and her notepad had nothing on it. She did not wear a name tag. She followed my glance at her notebook and smiled at me, this genuine, I love you, smile. The kind you see on new mother’s faces as their babies see them for the first time and gaze in wonder, blinking it’s eyes to clear it’s vision in this new world it has entered It was that kind of smile. “I doan need you silly ole records, honey. It’s all up heah.” She gave me a careful physical, listening to my heart beat for a long time. “You still got that murmur. You always did have that. It aint a gonna kill you though, not that.” She knelt in front of me and prayed for a moment, only a moment. She grasped my head with her hands and I noticed for the first time how scarred she was. Deep wounds, small ones, stabbing scars, bullet scars, unmistakable burn scars. For a moment I was afraid she was going to remove my head from my body, and was under the distinct impression that she could. She looked directly into my eyes. “You shore are a purty man. Whew. Laws. They tell it right. Good heart, too. But you weak. You sick.” She started massaging my head, carefully feeling the scar tissue that is still thankfully covered by hair. As if talking to someone else, she said, “Law, pon my honor he shudda died on dis one.” She put her hand on my abdomen and mumbled something else to that effect. She looked at me once more, a gentle look of amusement. “You did drown that day, you know.” I was staring at her now in shock. She turned to leave, much to my dismay. “Will I live?” I couldn’t help but ask that question, putting no stock in the answer. “Blieve so, honey.” “That baby now, Nolan? He’s gonna need you. Need you real bad. That gorgeous woman of yours, Laura? She gonna need you too, but you ain’t no help like ‘is.”
I sat stunned as she slipped noiselessly through the door and closed it behind her. The bedside lamp, which I had never noticed before, was gone, plunging the cell back into its gloom. Mystified beyond fear, I ran and beat on the door. “Who was that?” I asked the nurse on call. “What do you mean,” she asked. I backed away from the door and sat on my bunk, stunned. I was still sick, I still cried, but my will to live and stubbornness had returned. I was no longer broken, but whole.
I was released the next day. It was cold, blustery and the day before my Birthday. I held Nolan and wept under the umbrella of the restaurant we chose on a whim. Laura watched me closely as I shakily fed our infant.