A Question of War and Peace Chapter 5

Chapter 5

    “Hah!,” Jake said as he tossed another pebble.  “Do you want the long version, or the short?”
    “Let’s start with the short version,” I replied.  “Just the nouns and verbs.  We’ll get to the clauses and modifiers later.”
    “Okay,” he replied, and he stared at the cottonwood trees while he gathered his thoughts.  After a few moments he began to speak again.  “Here’s the thumbnail.  My childhood was not happy.  I learned that a bullet was never far from my head, no matter what I did.  I learned how to dodge most of those bullets by keeping to myself, staying invisible, and preparing myself for self-defense when necessary.  I’m trying to modify that now.  It’s hard, and it sucks.  Next question?”
    I waited for him to continue, but he sat silent and merely looked at me.  When I didn’t speak right away he returned his gaze to the field in front of us and resumed idly chucking pebbles into the grass.  I soon realized that he was finished speaking, unless I dug further.
    “That’s not a thumbnail; it’s a fingernail paring at best.  Could I get a little more please?  How about the childhood part?  Half the people I know had some tough times growing up.  What exactly was hard about yours?”
    Jake looked at me again, then flicked a pebble up into the air.  He caught it and chucked it into the field in one fluid motion, and then he began to speak.  “Did your father ever beat you up?  Did he whip you with a belt?”
    “No,” I replied.  “My parents didn’t go in for corporal punishment.”
    “Hrumpf,” he snorted.  “How detached that sounds.  ‘Go in for corporal punishment.’  Well, Father was not so delicate.  He didn’t ‘go in for corporal punishment’ either.  He preferred to beat the shit out of me.  From as early as I can remember, Father would beat me for any and everything that I did.  He’d beat me like Ginger Baker beats the drums.”
    “I’m sorry,” I said before he could go further with his story.  “I don’t mean to pry.”
    “Well, you asked, and I’m going to tell you.  I got beat for things I did and beat for things that I did not do.  Father used a belt mostly.  My mother used the flat of her hand - again - mostly.  I thought that it was just part of life.  My mother was not so bad early on, but as I got older she got worse, until she sort of began to disappear.  I think that she slowly cracked under the strain.”
    “Holy shit!  That sucks,” I said.
    “I told you that it did.  Mother tried to shield me at first, but like I said, she cracked.  After a while I expected it from both sides whenever she was around.”
    “Well, what was the deal?” I asked.  “That’s not normal.  You figured that out, right?  Like, what was the problem?”
    “I don’t know what a psychologist would call it, but Father wasn’t right in the head.  He was in World War II and Korea, but I don’t think that he was in combat.  Yeah, I’m pretty sure that he wasn’t in combat.  I don’t really know what it was all about.  It just was the way it was.”
    “So, how did you cope with that?”
    “I suppose that’s the point of this whole story, isn’t it?  One day when I was 10 years old I was playing catch with some friends.  I chucked a baseball and my friend Tommy Fletcher couldn’t catch it.  The ball went off of his glove and through a window in Mr. Steinhoffer’s garage.  That didn’t end well for me.”
    “What happened?”
    “Father paid for the window, and then I paid for the cost of repairs and for his inconvenience.  Do you know what a web belt is?”
    I shook my head that I did not know what a web belt is.
    “It’s a belt like they issue in the military.  About 2 inches wide or so.  Made out of canvas.  Father used to take pleasure in picking his belts when he was to whip me.  The thin leather ones would sting like a whip.  They’d cut, too.  The web belt; well, it was like a cannon as compared to a BB gun.  On this occasion he wrote the names of my friends on that belt and then told me that it was my friends who were giving me my beating, and not him.  He then laid into my butt until his arm was tired.”
    I sat there as still as a rock.  “That’s barbaric!” I spluttered at last.  “That’s fucking Neanderthal!”
    “Yeah?  Well, that was just another day in my life,” he replied.  “A bad day, as compared with the others, but otherwise not so very different from the rest.”
    “Oh no!  There’s no way that I would ….”
    “There’s no way that you would what?” he interrupted.  I was 10 years old, dammit, and this was no so out of the ordinary.  So what the hell would you have done?”
    He spoke softly, but with a steel about his eyes and in the set of his mouth.  I don’t remember sensing anger, but there was a hint of scorn, as of someone hearing empty words from a source who has no idea what they’re saying.  I took my cue and swallowed my protestations.  “Okay,” I said.  “Go on.”
    “Well, I learned something that day; that hour.  Hell, I learned something the very minute that he quit tearing my butt to shreds.  No, I have to back up one more time.  The thought came to me when I had passed beyond pain, and was only aware of the belt coming down on my butt again and again.  I learned that a bullet was never more than an inch away from my head, or that a runaway train was never more than a car length away from hitting me.  I knew with iron certainty that I couldn’t prevent the bullet from hitting me every time; nobody can do that.  I could dodge a hundred bullets and step out of the way of a hundred trains, but number one hundred and one is going to get me.  But I also learned - and this is most important - that I wasn’t suffering because I was bad.  I knew that I wasn’t less because disaster finally hit me.  It wasn’t my fault that it hit me.  It was going to hit me sooner or later, no matter what.  It doesn’t matter if it’s my fault or not; in fact, it usually wasn’t my fault.  All I could do is try to limit how many times it hits me.
    I shuddered as I heard this.  “Oh, man, I’m sorry,” I said.  “You shouldn’t have had to go through that.”
    “You ain’t heard nothing yet,” he replied, and I shuddered again.  “Like I said, you can only limit it; you can’t avoid it altogether.  I remembered my friends’ names on the belt, and I learned that friends were a distraction.  If I’m screwing around with them, I’m not looking for the train.  If I was paying attention I could see the train most of the time.  It was a matter of survival.  So I quit playing with friends and began to pay close attention to myself and my surroundings, and it worked.”
    “Worked?” I asked.  “How did it work?  You were 10 years old and you gave up friends?  You gave up playing?”
    “Absolutely.  Playing was a distraction.  A big distraction.  If I’m thinking about my fingers on the ball, with Tommy in front of me and me slinging the ball like Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle trying to throw out a runner trying to score from second base, then I’m not thinking about Mr. Steinhoffer’s window behind Tommy.  That could be costly to me.”
    “Shoot, I did both.  I played and thought of both.”
    “You didn’t have as much on the line as I did.  Anyway, I learned to quit being distracted by friends and playing and frivolous things like that, and I learned other things too.”
    “Other things, like what for instance?”
    “Like staying busy, and making myself useful to the point of being necessary.”
    “How did that work?”
    “Like this.  Father always had a small garden.  I took it over - slowly, of course - and eventually used most of the back yard for it.  I grew enough that mother cut down her food budget considerably.  We had fruit trees too.  I learned how to prune and water and fertilize them.  We had fresh and frozen and preserved fruits and vegetables all year.  Father and mother liked that, which reduced the frequency of the beatings, but it served another purpose too.”
    “Which was?”
    “Which was that I went door to door in my neighborhood selling the surplus of that produce.  I would make a buck at one house, two bucks at another, and by the end of fall I would have earned a nice little stash.  I also began to take over the front lawn, mowing and landscaping.  Then I learned how to properly wash the car, change the oil, do a tune up.  Father liked that too.  He liked not having to do it himself.  I exported those skills to the neighborhood along with my vegetables.  By the time I was 15 years old I had saved $1,000.  For a 15 year old kid in 1967, that was some pretty good scratch!”
    “That’s some pretty good scratch right now,” I replied.  “So, what did your friends think of all this?”
    “I quit having friends.”
    “Yeah, but you had them before.  How did they handle you shining them on?  Didn’t they have questions?”
    “Not really.  Not too much.  It was a complicated transition at first, but all of this happened in summer.  There were some complications in the fall when I went back to school however.  I wasn’t part of the crowd any more, and that led to some problems.  You know how friendly the playground can be to an outsider.”
    I gave a low whistle and answered, “Yeah.  Lord of the Flies.”
    “Yep.  Lord of the Flies.  It was pretty uncomfortable at first.  Nothing like what I was getting at home, but the punches still hurt, and the pranks were still humiliating.  Hell, I could take a punch easier than I could take getting tripped in front of the girls.”
    “Oh man.  You were in hell.”
    “Yes.  Yes I was in hell.  I committed myself to getting out of hell though.  I started to work out.  I did push ups.  I did pull ups.  I tied a rope onto a tree branch in the back yard and worked until I could pull myself up, hand over hand.  Then I worked until I could pull myself up 9 times in a row.  I could never get to 10 times.  I did squats holding an anvil that Father had in the garage, and curls with a length of steel chain.  I invented exercises and worked every muscle in my body.”
    “Did all of that training earn you respect?”
    “Yes, sort of.  That and karate earned me respect.  I was earning enough money that I could pay for karate lessons three times per week.  Father didn’t care, as long as he wasn’t paying for it.  I practiced and I practiced.  I climbed the rope, lifted the chains, squatted with the anvil, ran endlessly.  I did it all.  I kept my focus sharp, too.  No distractions.  No playing.  No flirting.  No horsing around.  It all paid off eventually.”
    “So, you had to kick someone’s ass?”
    “No.  Not really.  Not right away.”
    “So, how did it pay off?”
    “One day one of the nastiest bullies and his pack cornered me behind some bungalows.  I’d never seen so many of them in one place at one time.  They started into their usual routine of pushes and insults, slaps and so forth.  If you’ve ever been bullied, you know what I’m talking about.”
    I shook my head that I had never been in that situation.
    “Well anyway, I challenged them.”
    “You chose them all out?”
    “No.  I challenged them to keep up with me in a workout the next recess.”
    “And they accepted?”
    “Not at first, but I ridiculed them and told them point blank that they couldn’t keep up with me.  I told them that I was stronger than them, faster than them and smarter than them.  I told them, in front of all of their sycophants and hangers-on that they were afraid to compete with me.  They couldn’t ignore that; not when it was thrown down in front of their friends.”
    “Uh-huh.  So, how did it go?”
    “Exactly as I expected it to go.  The next recess they showed up.  They had to.  I ran them once around the playground and then did 20 pull ups on a high bar.  Most couldn’t do 20.  Then I ran them around the playground again, but faster this time.  When we came to the monkey bars, or what I guess they call the jungle gym now, I did elevated push ups, sit ups, dips, and exercises that I invented myself.  They couldn’t equal anything that I did.  Then I took off running around the playground again, but this time at a sprint.  They all fell out, and I just ran laughing.”
    “I suppose that earned you some respect.”
    “It did with some.  With others however, I had to explain one-on-one that if I could outperform them in every area of strength, then they should imagine what I could do if it came to a fight.  Of course, I had only just begun to learn karate.  At that time I probably couldn’t have taken on most of them in a street fight, but they didn’t know that.”
    “So I suppose that bought you some peace?”
    “Yeah, it did.  I wanted to learn more though, to make myself better prepared to defend myself.  I learned who were the best teachers locally and studied karate and other forms of martial arts under them over the years.  I only had to use those lessons one time on a bully, and that came several years after my elementary school trials.”
    “Wow,” I said after taking a minute to digest all that Jake had told me.  “I can’t imagine how lonely that felt.”
    “No,” he shot back.  “What you can’t imagine is how much the beatings had hurt.  My new framework for navigating a treacherous life was a bliss by comparison.”
    “But, no social contact with people….”
    “And no contact on my butt from that belt, or the back of Father’s hand.  Uh-uh, the trade was a good one.  Besides, I had plenty of business contact with my customers.  I kept one eye on my work and one eye on my academic studies, and the other eye on the horizon looking for incoming trouble.  In that way I ducked most of the grief that would have come for me otherwise.”
    “Most of it?  How much more did you have to take?”
    “Father would go into moods where he just had to take it out on someone.  Mother wouldn’t allow it to happen to her, but by the time that I was 15 she wasn’t home much any more.  She found other places to be and things to do, and other people to do them with. I’ll not say much more about that.  My older brother was long gone, in the merchant marine I was told.  My sister was two years older than me and she got pregnant and married a senior at high school.  She dropped out and he was drafted when he graduated, and after his training they moved somewhere; I don’t know where.”
    “So, that just left you and your dad?”
    “Yes, but he was never my dad.  I never had a dad.  No Daddy, no Pop or Pops, not even an Old Man.  I just had Father.  Biology was responsible for that and there was no way that I could avoid it.  Anyway, yeah.  Me and him, mostly.”
    “So, did he continue to beat you up when you were in high school?”
    “I was 15 years old the last time that he tried.  By then I was fully fit and had over 4 years of martial arts training.  He never tried again.”
    “Holy shit.  You clocked your Old Man?  I’m sorry man.  I know that I’ve already said that, but it’s true.  That kind of history would jack up anyone’s mind.”
    “Thanks, but I don’t think of my mind as being jacked up.  No.  It’s focused.  I’ve avoided other people’s problems and minded my own business.  It’s worked out for me pretty well.”
     “So, what about after you graduated?  What came next?”
    “I graduated at 17.  I really applied myself in the 5th and 6th grades, and two months into the 7th I was moved up one.  When I graduated I went straight into the Army.  I needed Father’s signature for that, which he gladly gave.  It was the last time that I saw him.”
    “What did you do in the Army?”
 Jake looked thoughtfully at me for a minute before resuming his story, and then he said, “The Army noticed my ability to defend myself and to not be seen by others if I didn’t want to be seen.  They developed several other skills in addition to those, and I won’t speak any more about what I did.  It is sufficient to say that I used my skills.”
    “Oh, uh, yeah.  I’m sorry.  We don’t have to go there.”
    “And we won’t.”
    “So, what are you doing now?  I mean, what are you planning to do after you graduate from here?”
    “Construction and real estate.  This state is going to grow like a weed, and I intend to cash in on it.  I need some business training; you know, business law, accounting, management, all of that stuff.  Also, I have to begin to learn how to navigate social interactions in a healthy manner.  It was my refuge to avoid social contact as a child, and it was part of my job to do the same for nearly 6 years in the Army.  Now I have to change that in order to function competently in the social world.  That’s why I’ve taken an apartment with two other guys instead of renting my own studio.  Have you noticed how well I’m doing?”
    He uttered a sardonic chuckle and flipped another two pebbles into the field.  He then fell silent, and I knew that he was at the end of his story.  I wasn’t finished with my investigation however, especially of one specific question.  “You were really unhappy with what happened today.  I saw you rescue an animal and defend yourself, which seemed like the right and logical things to do.  Why did that make you so angry?”
    “Why did that make me angry?” Jake repeated my question.  He shook the pebbles which remained in his hand as if he were shaking dice before throwing them.  At last he allowed the pebbles to drop from his hand and spoke again.
    “Saving the cat was a natural thing for me to do.  I’ve come to value animal contact more highly than I have human.  Defending myself was an automatic act.  I don’t reflect on that much one way or the other.  What affected me was that when I strove to let my guard down a little; to let myself care what Paul had done to Lisa, I became angry that your sister had stepped up to defend that girl while I sat in a chair debating.  By the time that I allowed myself to consider joining the human race, the human race had gotten tired of waiting for me and passed me by.  
    “I didn’t like the way that I looked and I didn’t like the way that I felt, and I didn’t know what to do with how I felt.  For me, that was a lot of ‘I don’t knows,’ and that is a position that I have tried to never be in.  I was angry with myself.”
    “Hmm.  And when you took off your shirt and we saw that scar or whatever it is.  You didn’t look too happy about that either.”
    “It goes with the rest of the story.  I got that scar in the line of duty.  I got careless one day.  I missed some signs of trouble and I paid for it.  I don’t show that scar to people, just as I have avoided more than superficial contact with people.  It’s a sign that I can be beaten, and I have not allowed my enemies to even consider the possibility that I can be beaten.  Believe me, I have never found an upside to showing that. 
    “When I allowed myself to care about Lisa’s mistreatment, I thought about all of the other times when I have seen people being mistreated and I stayed out of it because it was not my business.  That exposed a flaw in my life, and I can’t allow flaws.  They can be fatal.  So after what happened at the pool I returned to the apartment and tried to return into my mental safe space.  I didn’t plan to do that really.  It was a simple autonomic reaction.”
    “It wasn’t that big of a deal to us,” I said.  “It wasn’t like we were judging you for what you did or didn’t do.  Actually, I liked it that you saved the cat, and I loved it that you clocked that punk Cary.”
    “I know that you weren’t judging me.  I was judging myself.  You and your sister saw my physical flaw that I received as a result of my loss of focus some years ago.  It made me feel weak.  It made me feel vulnerable.  It made me feel like a bullet or a train was about to crash into me, or maybe both a bullet and a train at the same time.  It was a powerful feeling and it unsettled me, and I didn’t handle it well.  This will be a long process I’m afraid, and I don’t know yet how it will work out.”  
    I now realized that Jake was finished talking.  I could see by the way that his gaze turned back out to the cottonwood trees that he had nothing more to add, and that was fine with me.  I raised the bottle of wine, but thought twice about drinking and finally handed the bottle over to him.  “Here,” I said.  “You probably need this more right now than I do.”
    He looked at me and said with a face that looked like moulded steel.  “I don’t need anything.”  Then that rigid face broke into something that looked close to a good-natured smile.  “But what does need have to do with it?”  He then took the bottle out of my hand and took a gulp of wine.

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