CHAPTER 1: THE PEFSONAL IS POLITICAL
My father’s favorite instrument of punishment: six feet of rubber hose. He doubled it in his hand and brought it down hard. It gave off a “swoosh” before branding my flesh with U-shaped bruises.
One summer day at our church Vacation Bible School when I was twelve I lifted my shirt to show a friend the welts I had received the night before. Miss Davis, a teacher, saw the blue-red wounds all over my back and blurted, “What in the world happened to you?” I pulled my shirt down, glanced at her, and said nothing. My friend also said nothing. Miss Davis acted as if she’d stumbled onto something that was none of her business. She quickly assembled the class and led us all in singing, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Then we prayed, “Our Father who art in heaven, thank you for our mothers, thank you for our fathers, forgive us our sins, and help us be good boys and girls. . . .”
Neither Miss Davis nor any other adult ever spoke of my father’s violence. People in church, at school and in the neighborhood seemed to feel that spankings and beatings were part of growing up. Fathers, principals, and teachers were expected to keep boys in line – girls, too, though for a girl to be spanked was rare. Girls were also abused – psychologically, mentally and sometimes sexually. But it was generally accepted that The Last Beating
I was sixteen the last time my father tried to beat me. My life up to that point had been shaped by his escalating violence. It began with switches across my bare legs, which always started by my father telling me, “Go out in the backyard and cut a switch off the bush.” I knew he meant from the tall shrubs along the driveway by the garage. Once, when I was six I brought a switch too small for the task. He stormed out of the house and came back with the biggest, toughest switch I’d ever seen. From then on I always cut longer, sturdier switches.
What began with switches across my legs became in winter strikes across my backside with the leather strop he used to sharpen his razor. Sometimes he’d use his narrow leather belt. It hurt more than the switches or razor strop. Other times he’d strike me with an eighteen-inch wooden ruler. But by the time I was ten, he would mostly use a yard-long willowy branch half an inch in diameter at the tip. It made a whirring sound before it struck. Seeing the branch on a ledge above his closet door made me shudder.
“Son, this hurts me more than it does you,” he would often say This was my first lesson in hypocrisy.
At school boys often talked about the spankings and beatings we’d girls were good and boys were bad. So boys were the ones who should be punished, either because they’d been bad or because they were about to be.
I brooded over my punishments. I thought my father was unfair and cruel. He whipped me far more than my younger brother for what I regarded as minor offenses. To this day I am unable to remember the deeds for which I was punished. I do recall that sometimes I’d get whipped for not being home when he thought I should be. I never had a watch, and it was easy to get caught up in flying a kite or skating until evening shadows made me dash home. My return home would often be met with a beating.
Occasionally I’d get in trouble for playing ball instead of collecting money on my paper route. The problem was there’d always be someone who didn’t have the 25 cents per week or dollar per month. My father decreed there would be no play until all my subscribers had paid. I was just as unable to force people to pay as my father was to keep me from playing ball. His rule of “all-pay-or-no-play” could be enforced at any moment of any day. All he needed was to see me playing while there were unclipped receipts in my collection book, and he’d order me indoors to be punished with his weapon of choice.
As a boy I was convinced that the severity of my punishments was out of proportion to any wrongs I’d done. I also began to realize that beatings weren’t necessarily part of the experience of growing up. I knew boys who’d never had a hand laid on them, and others who got spanked, but only rarely, and then for good reason. I knew the parents of these boys, and they seemed like good people to me.
The more I compared what was happening to me with what was happening to my sisters, my brother, and my friends, the more I realized I was being treated unfairly. If I‘d known anyone who could help me, I’d have asked for help. Mother died when I was six; and I felt that beatings were beyond the ken of my four older sisters. We never discussed being hurt by our father. By the time I was ten I sensed that my sisters had determined that their role in the family was to uphold the ruling authority of our father. I could never appeal my case to them.
I needed to take my case to someone who would give me a sympathetic hearing – and stop my father’s abuse. There was my stepmother; but she was either too afraid to intervene – or worse, in league with my father. Grandpa Mullins, from my mother’s side of the family, was a loveable gentleman, but he lived a hundred miles distant, so we never saw much of him. And he was not an authority figure. I knew I would need an authority figure, somebody who’d be a match for my father.
Pop Ashburn, the principal at Woodrow Wilson High, was an imperious yet approachable man. I thought maybe he could hear my case. But I crossed him off the list when I decided he’d just feed me a line about “grinning and bearing it.” I was getting desperate. I considered going to the Police. But I decided they’d laugh at me, tell my father, and send me back home in more trouble than ever. My Sunday School teacher and other church-goers, would be no help either. I knew some were, like my father, tyrants in their own homes.
This left Dr. Criswell, the pastor of First Baptist, the biggest church in downtown Dallas. When I was a boy, this church had more than five thousand members, with a Sunday attendance of two thousand. Our family always attended its services. My father was actually a deacon in the church. First Baptist was a formative force in my life. I felt it put me in touch with a source of spiritual power.
I was a true believer in the Baptist faith, and Pastor Criswell was the embodiment of that faith. He was also the only person I considered equal to my father. So I decided to take my case to him. I played out the whole scenario in my imagination ahead of time. I saw myself entering the church, walking up to his study on the second floor. He would greet me warmly, invite me in and talk about my “saintly” father, then ask me why I had come to see him. I’d tell him about the whippings and beatings. He’d open his Bible and read verses about love and forgiveness and the duty of obedience. Then he would come around to my side of his desk and ask me to kneel with him in prayer. Then I would leave. And the beatings would continue. I had already tried prayer and knew it was no help. So I crossed Dr. Criswell off the list, which left me with nowhere to turn.
Except of course to my friends, which included girls. Some girls were amazingly good at helping heal the hurt, especially those who had also been hurt. Then there were those who were just good at listening. We’d listen to each other and support each other.
Then there was Shirley Green. I first met her at church. She was plain but lovely, a little awkward, with a beautiful smile. She and her parents had recently moved to Dallas from Oklahoma. They lived in a two-room house across the Trinity River, an hour-and-a-half trolley and bus ride from where I lived.
One Sunday evening – I was sixteen and a junior in high school – the well-to-do Wicker family invited our church Training Union group to come to their home for an end-of-school party. Their house had a terraced lawn, a winding creek, a badminton court, an outdoor barbecue, Ping-Pong and picnic tables. The Wickers had teenage children and had always been generous to young people like me.
That Sunday evening I invited Shirley to go with me, and she said yes. In the car going home I shared my plans with my father. “When is the party?” he asked. “Thursday night.” “And when is school out?” “Friday.” “You know you can’t go out at night when you have school the next day.” “But all we do on Friday is receive our report cards, get our yearbooks signed, and go home before lunch.” “It’s still a school day, and you can’t go out the night before.” “But I’ve already made a date with Shirley Green, and she has no phone, so there’s no way I can cancel. I can’t just leave her standing there wondering what happened because I don’t show up.” “You know you should not have made a date with Shirley Green. You can’t go.”
On Thursday morning I repeated my points that nothing happened at school on Friday, that I couldn’t let Shirley down, and that I intended to go to the party. The last thing my father said was: “You can’t go.” But I went.
Shirley looked gorgeous in a dress as green as her eyes. The party was wonderful. But suddenly I was called to the phone. My father had been on the phone lecturing Mr. Wicker about parties on school nights. I listened to Mr. Wicker, father of two high school students and deacon in the church, repeating the same things I had said about the last day at school.
My father never cursed or shouted. But he had a withering way with words. And my being at the party gave him a chance to give a piece of his mind to his fellow deacon, someone who had never seen this side of him. Mr. Wicker passed the phone to me. My father’s anger came through the phone at fever pitch. He demanded that I get right home. I replied, calmly, that I’d made arrangements for a ride that would take Shirley home first across town, then bring me back to east Dallas. This would get me home earlier than the bus. My father slammed the phone down, and I returned to the party embarrassed.
I arrived home around midnight. The house was dark. I crossed the front room, and started down the hall toward the bedroom shared with my brother. I sensed my father’s presence before I heard him, heard him before I saw him. When I caught sight of him he was holding the rubber hose doubled over in his right hand. He ordered me to bend over the bed. For the first time in my life I refused.
He tried to wrestle me down. He was stronger than I, but he couldn’t beat me if I refused to let him. I moved in close, wrapped my arms around his neck as if to hug him, lifted my feet from the floor and hung my body deadweight from his shoulders. He was completely immobilized. But he continued to struggle. His breathing grew heavier, faster and louder. He tried to fling me across the bed where he could hit me. But I hung on. Finally he grew limp with exhaustion. I loosened my arms and stepped back as he stumbled from the room, wringing wet with sweat and muttering. Never again did I see that rubber hose in his hand. Never again did he try to beat me.