I grew up in a war zone. It wasn’t anywhere near Iraq or Viet Nam or a little country in Africa. It was in a small white clapboard house in Butler, New Jersey. There weren’t any weapons of mass destruction, either, at least not in the conventional sense.
The weapons of mass destruction my parents employed were a combination of a public reputation of being a “nice” family mixed with huge doses of anger and violence behind closed doors. Hardly a day passed without missiles of fear and rage exploding from my parents, sending shrapnel deep into my psyche.
It wasn’t a glorious fight. There was no hope for a better future, no attempts at freedom, no noble cause except for the deep, ravenous pain that poured from my parents like a swarm of killer bees and my own deep desire to survive.
The neighbors heard the shouting matches, the pounding of heads against the walls, the cries of pain from the children. They did what was considered socially correct in the early 1960s—they closed their windows and played their radios really loud. When they ran into our family at the Pathmark that sat in its own plaza on the rich side of town they’d talk about the weather as they focused their eyes over our heads in a pointedly offhanded way.
It was essential that I hide my war wounds—the bruises, blood blisters and welts—beneath long sleeves, trousers and turtlenecks. If I dared to accuse my poor sweet mother or my hard-working father of mistreatment, neighbors and school officials would tut tut at me and say things like, “You should be ashamed of yourself,” or “You should be glad to have a home at all—be thankful for what you have.”
One thing my mother did that was somewhat nice was to read classic fiction to my siblings and me on Saturday afternoons while my father was cleaning the big red trucks at the volunteer fire department. She read books like Bambi, The Jungle Bookand Call of the Wild. From the thoughts expressed by Felix Salten, Rudyard Kipling, and Jack London, I caught glimpses of a bigger world. A rough world, but one in which it was possible to thrive.
As soon as I learned to read, I reread Call of the Wild. I felt an inner thrumming as I read about how the wolf-dog, Buck, asserted his dependence by answering his deepest inner calling to return to his wild ancestors.
As Buck learned to kill and eat rabbits, I imagined the hot taste of blood as I shared the life-giving liquid with him, the poetic prose filling my insides with thrumming life. I learned the absolute necessity to express my own voice as Buck learned to howl.
Howl I did, too—in the school choir where I sang my heart out and in vulpine mimic as I howled like a wolf on the playground when the other children called me weird. I learned when Buck was captured and forced to fight other dogs to the death that cruelty has its own set of rules.
I learned that no matter how noble Buck the dog was, that his rules didn’t work as well for me as a human. I learned the futility of fighting from my father; that when he used his fists to pummel my body, fighting back wouldn’t stop him and crying about it wouldn’t earn me any honor. Snarling at my mother when she belittled me and sent me to bed without dinner, even as an alternative to keeping at bay the words that lay all along my esophagus, only brought more stripes from the whip like forsythia branches that were her weapon of choice.
As I learned to see through Buck the dog’s eyes, I saw that my parents reveled in my pain. They enjoyed my fear. My emotional response to their abuse was as much their life’s blood as the rabbits and deer were for Buck.
What didn’t I learn?
Play. Love. Kindness. Compassion. Selfhood.
I didn’t know how important those words were until many years later, after battling the whole world to try to prove how mean my parents had been. I began to understand that Universal Laws overshadowed human laws. One of the Universal Laws I learned was that even though it might seem like beating up a few children didn’t harm society and that society taught that people should just mind their own business, that choosing a life of violence metes out consequences that no one can escape.
Until I was five my family did all the required social things like Thanksgiving, Fourth of July and Christmas. My father, a Korean War vet, donned his khaki colored uniform and marched in parades all summer. I endured the hours of scorching sun, my mother moaning that she had a headache and that my father was going to be the death of her, my own tongue swelling as my body dehydrated and my scalp blistered in the heat.
I knew that if I waited long enough, there’d be a picnic for the families of the veterans, with lemonade, hot dogs, and hamburgers. Food was scarce at home because my mother spent the grocery money on cigarettes that she hid next door at her best friend, Kelly’s, so she could tell my father that she’d quit smoking as he’d ordered after her father got lung cancer and died. My mother would buy cheap white bread, hot dogs and fish sticks, maybe a few cans of soup, spend the rest on cigarettes and complain that my father was a cheapskate who didn’t give her enough money for food.
So I’d endure the heat without complaining too much when my mother said that if I hadn’t broken the glass-lined thermos that came with my school bus lunchbox, I could have brought myself something to drink. It didn’t matter that my thermos had gotten broken when another child grabbed it from me and smashed it on the ground.
In my family, survival of the fittest was a daily necessity.
I’d hurry to the park where the picnic was held as soon as the parade ended and guzzle six or seven paper cups of lemonade, then hover around the trash barrels that had been converted into charcoal grills as volunteers cooked hamburgers and hot dogs. Once I stood so close that I burnt my arm on the hot metal. I tried to hide the ugly four-inch long blister from my father but one of the volunteers took me to him.
“What’s wrong with you?” my father snapped as he tied a strip of cotton cloth from the first aid kit he carried with him as a member of the Civil Defense team around my arm so tight that my fingers turned blue.
He forbad me from being anywhere near the grills so I had to stand in line holding a floppy paper plate and get my toes smashed by a chubby kid who pushed in front of me and grabbed the last four hot dogs. I learned that if I chose to fight, like the wolf-dog Buck, I’d be beaten so badly when I got home that the burn on my arm would feel good in comparison. So I clutched my bandaged arm and used the one tactic that at least some people would respond to.
I turned on the waterworks.
A volunteer rushed over and I blubbered that I was so hungry that I felt like I was going to faint and that my arm hurt really bad and that another kid had stepped on my toes.
I got two hamburgers.
I wolfed them down then hung out until the corn on the cob was done.
After downing four ears, I dashed over to the red and white checked tablecloth covered table with the huge cardboard containers of ice cream. I was first in line for Neapolitan. I ate the chocolate and vanilla parts so fast that I got brain freeze. I was dumping the strawberry part, which I hated, into the trash when the chubby kid who’d stepped on my toes blocked me.
“You gonna eat that?”
“No, I don’t like it.”
I didn’t like his tone. But considering he’d already proven that he could crush my toes, I held the plate with the melting pink ice cream out to him. The flimsy paper crumpled and the ice cream fell to the ground.
“Hey!” the kid shrieked, raising his fist to pound me. “You did that on purpose!”
I was in a bad place and I knew it. If I hadn’t been conditioned by consistent, vicious beatings not to swear I’d have said I was screwed. I closed my eyes and curled my body toward the trash can, hoping it absorb at least some of the blows.
The familiar sound of phlegm being sloshed up and down a throat made me gasp.
“What’s going on here?”