Part Ten: When You Gaze Long Into the Abyss

My maternal grandfather was quite possibly the most important influence during my childhood, and after my father was functionally removed from the picture he stepped in and took over in the role of father figure for me. Quite sincerely, I could not have asked for anyone better to have fulfilled that need in my life.
He was a hard working man right up until the decades of smoking took their toll and forced him to require an oxygen tank just to breathe. I spent summer months and weekends in the spring and fall accompanying him to flea markets and threshing bees, assisting him with small engine repair (a skill that he picked up during his time in the Navy). At the time, being barely even an adolescent, I sometimes got bored and looked at the days spent thus way as a bizarre form of punishment…and I wish that I could go back and smack that ungrateful little shit and teach him to appreciate the lessons he was learning as well as the time he was fortunate enough to spend with a great man.
My grandfather was well respected in the small community where I grew up, and with good reason. As selfish and stupid as I could be when I was younger, my grandfather was the one person I was least inclined to behave disrespectful towards. There was something about him that elicited a degree of compliance from me that no one else ever really could.
This story isn’t about my grandfather; I just wanted you to know a little bit about the man because he plays an important role in the story I am about to share.
I made a passing reference to the violence that punctuated my childhood, both at home and in the outside world. I’d like to take this little bit of time here to discuss the violence outside of my home, so sit down and pay some damn attention…maybe you will learn something.
I told you before that I didn’t make friends easily (and still don’t, as you’re probably aware), and that may have been a bit of an understatement. I don’t know what it was about me as a child, at least not specifically, but I apparently rubbed people the wrong way pretty badly. It could be something as simple as the fact that I was taller than all of my peers until right around high school, it could have been because I was smarter than most of them (if not all of them) and they resented me for it, it could have been due to the fact that I was always a little bit different (and I know I’m not fooling anyone by trying to pretend it was some miniscule bit of peculiarity I exhibited), or it may very well have been a combination of some or all of those things…I never did learn why I was singled out the way that I was.
I don’t remember when it started, the years back then blur together for me this far away, but it may have been as early as first grade when the beatings started…and they continued for years.
There was a certain group of kids consisting of classmates as well as older friends of theirs and family members who determined, for whatever reason, that I was something to be broken. I played basketball with some of these boys and later participated in Cub Scouts/Boy Scouts with them, but there was no sense of being comrades between us outside of those circumstances.
Looking back from the vantage point of the present, it seems like I was subjected to their bullshit a couple of days a week all through the school year, but I know it couldn’t have conceivably been that frequent; they would have had to get bored with it if that had been the case. It was frequent enough that it hammered itself into my memory pretty severely though. It wasn’t always the same faces taunting me, hitting and kicking me…some days it was only two or three of them, other days there were five or six of them. I’m not ashamed to admit that I was scared. Anyone would have been frightened under those same circumstances.
It had to have been one of the first times that this happened when my grandfather came out yelling and chased the boys off before helping me to my feet. My grandparents lived diagonally across the street from where I attended school and had a clear view of the parking lot where most of this violence took place. I actually feel bad for my grandfather sometimes because I know that he had to witness the same thing happening to me with far too much frequency. That first time though, he made me promise that I would not get into fights with those boys. He told me that I was not supposed to fight back, that I needed to avoid them and get away from them if it happened again.
If anyone else had asked me to do the same thing I would have dismissed it and done whatever I had to do. But I did not take that promise to my grandfather lightly.
Over the following years it happened again and again, some days I could get away without a scratch…but there were plenty of times which ended with me on the ground, beaten and sobbing out of frustration and pain, and none of those times did I even attempt to fight back. I took what they dished out with as much dignity as the situation allowed, escaping if the opportunity presented itself. I could run like a motherfucker if properly motivated.
For the longest time I almost resented my grandfather for insisting that I not fight back, most profoundly during and immediately following one of the beatings.
As I got older I looked back on his request and tried to understand why he would ask me to just take it without raising a hand to defend myself. When I was in a particularly negative state of mind I worried that he saw something bad in me, something possibly passed down to me from my father, and this was his way of doing the best he could to help me overcome that potential monster hiding there beneath the surface. I know that wasn’t his reasoning at all, and that he was simply teaching me to be a better and stronger man, and that violence wasn’t a solution. The funny thing is, when I have really let myself look closely at my life, I wonder if he wasn’t unintentionally killing two birds with one stone there. I still suspect, and fear, that there is something down there, lurking beneath the skin…and I learned to keep it there through the lessons my grandfather taught me, of discipline and self control. He may not have seen something terrible inside of me but I know myself well enough to suspect that it is in there…and that is where it can damn well stay.
All of that aside, there did finally come a time; perhaps it was after a particularly bad beating that I experienced (or maybe he was just tired of seeing those smug little shits beating on his grandson), when my grandfather told me that I had his permission to fight back the next time, but only if they hit me first. I can still clearly recall a sensation that can only be equated to having shackles removed at that moment.
As it turned out it wasn’t me being hit that served as the impetus for my bring able to respond in kind. I was in the next yard over from my grandparents’ house, playing with the boy who lived there. He was the nicest kid, a bit on the slow side, but he didn’t treat me strangely…which may explain why I have an easy time building rapport with individuals suffering from various sorts of mental handicap.
A few of the boys who routinely beat me up showed up and started behaving like the assholes that they were. I don’t know what led to it but one of them shoved the neighbor boy over and I felt like I was free to retaliate. I do not exaggerate when I tell you that I hit him hard enough that he went over the white picket fence that separated that yard from my grandparents’. It sounds like embellishment, and you are free to assume it to be just that, but I assure you that I have been entirely forthcoming in this, as with the rest of what I have shared with you.
I’ve always been stranger than I look, and I was justifiably angry at the time. My grandfather was right, that was the last time I had to worry about those boys after school. There was only one other incident during grade school when I used violence as a means to an end. This time it wasn’t justified and I felt terrible about it. In the hallway one day another student began saying some rude and cruel things to me and I didn’t catch myself before I could react.  I hit him once in the chest and cracked five or six of his ribs…I was 11 or 12 at the time. I immediately felt awful for hitting him and worse after learning how badly I’d actually hurt him. After that I got myself in check and really internalized the importance of avoiding violence.
There was another period of a few years after the accident when I lost track of the lessons I had learned from my grandfather, when there was nothing but anger fueling me, but I did finally get myself back under control…too late to avoid leaving some damage in my wake, but I never claimed to be perfect.
I could have turned out much worse though, and almost certainly would have without my grandfather providing me with his influence and teaching me that violence is almost never the correct answer.


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