Dr. Matthews told us in college that either we’d had a rough childhood or we were lying. There wasn’t much grey area there: Either life on the mean streets of Pleasant Ridge was nasty and brutish, or I was just blocking out all the nasty, brutish stuff.
My perceptions shifted forever as he said that, because for years I claimed that I had a fairly normal childhood. After his proclamation, I started examining my past and remembered the pain and suffering. I’ve worked my way through this little phase and have come to see that my beatings and degradations were grist for the comedic mill and, more importantly, they are a part of who I am today. Without all the nasty, brutish stuff I would have wound up—as I thought of myself before taking Dr. Matthews’ class—fairly normal.
Peering back through the haze of early memories, I think now that one of those defining moments was my best friend, Dan Fletcher, turning on me. For my entire life, he lived across the street and considered me his best friend. I didn’t know what being a best friend entailed but since he lived the closest to me, I guess that counted. His father made more money than my dad, and they always had new Cadillacs with personalized license plates and Dan stockpiled the latest GI Joe arsenal. So, yeah, being his best friend worked out well.
When I was in 5th grade, Dan was in 6th and we walked to school some days with Craig Yancey from around the block—especially when we were on safety patrol and had to leave early to get to our posts. One day, they showed up at my house to pick me up and I could tell they were in mean form.
I’d dealt with this sort of thing before with neighborhood friends and usually could tell how long it would last. My brother, too, would pass through dark moods and I could normally gauge how much leeway I had before I really had to look out. But this day was different. They seemed out for blood, and no amount of placating or asking questions about other things to distract them was going to work.
I’m not sure how it got so out of hand so quickly, but within steps from my house, they were berating me and moving toward physical violence. These were my friends, mind you, and we were supposed to be walking to our safety posts, so there wasn’t much I could do other than just accept the inevitable.
It wasn’t long before they were slugging me in the arm and pushing me to the ground. Being a weak 5th-grader, I was no match against two 6th-graders. My only option was to wait for it all to end. Passive resistance.
Except that this pattern continued for weeks! They would wait for me after school on the swings so they could escort me off the school grounds and issue another beating. Or they’d attack me as I carried my awkward trombone case and try to make me drop it by holding onto my shoulders, jumping up on my back and kneeing me in the spine. I’d come home and try to hide this from Mom until one day, she noticed the depths of my moodiness and made me tell her what was happening. I sat in the den, crying harder than I can ever remember crying, while Mom laid on the couch, enraged at what she was hearing. I distinctly remember seeing her face screw up into something fierce and altogether different than I ever remember seeing before. “I’ll kill him!” she said. “I absolutely want to go across the street and kill him!”
I begged her not to do anything, but she did anyway. Looking back, I guess her course of action was better than homicide. She went to the principal of our school and demanded that the boys stop beating me. I came home the following day and she asked how things went. When I said nothing had changed, she informed me that things would be different very soon. I broke into another round of tears when she told me about her talk with the principal. I couldn’t believe she had betrayed my trust.
But Dan and Craig did stop. And my life was so much better afterward. I even became friends with Dan again after an extended, uneasy truce, and we went out to North Dakota to see our friend Missy together. It’s amazing how easily kids can forgive. Perhaps it was because he lived so close to me and we couldn’t avoid each other. But I think it points to the resiliency of childhood.
Years later as an adult, Henry, another one of my best friends, suddenly and violently changed his mind about our relationship. We were driving home from the movie theater and he lit into me something fierce. I was asking him what was bothering him that evening and, when he wouldn’t let me in, I pushed a little too hard. What followed was a torrent of rage, spitting from his mouth into my face about how good I supposedly thought I was, yet how naïve and righteous I really was—and blah, blah, blah. At one point, as we were stopped at the light next to the cemetery on Main Street, I reached over and socked him in the arm to try and pull him out of his screaming rage.
That didn’t help at all. In fact, my playful punch sent him spiraling off into a black hole of bile. When he finally dropped me off, I got out of the car shaking and near tears. I didn’t know what had just happened, but it reminded me too much of my earlier experience with Dan Fletcher. Henry hasn’t spoken to me much since that event a dozen years ago, even though I still keep in contact with his family. I can’t believe it happened to me as a kid and it happened again as an adult. The themes we play out in life are kind of scary that way. I have become a little leery of trusting guys. Even my wife observes that it takes longer for me to become friends with a guy than it does with a woman. Women don’t generally punch, at least physically.
Remember Dr. Matthews? Well, he eventually died tragically, slumped in the men’s room of a mid-Michigan courthouse after years of heavy smoking ravaged his circulatory system. I think “tragedy” was his life theme. One of his sons committed suicide. Another did something even more rash: He became a photojournalist, like me. So now I suspect that my professor’s worldview was skewed through the lens of his own tragic life.
I’m even discovering that, while everybody’s so focused these days on changing our future, there’s a lot to be said for changing our past … at least our perceptions of it anyway.