Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Butt of Silence

I was on the verge of my tenth year of life. My stepfather, through his work, rented a big cabin next to the Lake Mead for next to nothing. Several families joined us for the week together. The parents filled us children with images of fishing, swimming and boating. Only later did we understand the visions filling the imaginations of the adults, nearby Las Vegas. It was the seventies and we kids were not the center attraction, but a sideshow that had to be accounted for. My family plied into Datsun B210, and headed out from the desert heat of El Paso, our home, to the desert heat of Lake Mead, the place of imagination and fun. Other families would join us there.

On our way to the lake, I -remember the drive through the desert wilderness. The path seemed to have a puddle of water just ahead. The black asphalt and the blasting heat played ticks on your visions. I would count the green mile markers and listen to the endless playing of the pop hymn, American Pie.
“…and good-old boys drinking whiskey and rye, singing this will be the day that I die, singing this will be the day that I die…”

When we arrived at the lake, it was hot. The whole week the temperatures were above a hundred and ten degrees, but, like I said, the lake was the excuse for the trip. The cabin brought the possibility of gambling, partying and drinking. They would go off in groups of four and five to pay homage to the myth of becoming big winners. Sometimes, the grownups would be gone for whole days at a time. They just had to make sure that one couple stayed and watch all the kids. This became a point of struggle among the adults. Everyone wanted to gamble and the children were the liability no one wanted. The fight over the kids issue almost led to fistfights, until someone found what seemed like the final solution to the kids problem. We would all go to Las Vegas. In their thirst for the neon life, the adults made a mistake.

The kids were to stay in a hotel room by themselves for the night. We had money for pizza. We had sodas and chips. We had candy and sugar in various forms. The plan: one of the parents was supposed to come every couple of hours to check that we were being kind to our surroundings. The children had the phone numbers (yes before cell phones) to the casinos were our parents fed money to the machinery of Las Vegas.
They thought that we would be okay, if they gave us second thought at all. We, four boys and three girls all under eleven years of age and the two teenage girls who forcible volunteered to control the party, were alone for the night. The predictable disaster followed. The parents left before the sun fell bellow the horizon. We saw none of them until they all returned with the sun at five or so in the morning.

We, before their return, went into a large chocolate and sugar frenzy. We jumped on the bed. We went swimming until the night watchman kicked us out of the hotel pool. We appointed leaders, not the parent anointed teenage girls, to create our fun. Chris led the boys and I forget who led the girls. Bobby, the smallest boy and Chris’s cousin, joined in our revelry. We threw food at each other. Powered by sugar, we laughed, fought, and cried. The room was a mess, but it was, for the most part, undamaged until the parents returned to fetch us back to the cabin by the lake.

All of the parents were angry with the mess they found, but Bobby’s Dad the most. Drunk, he surveyed the sea of chip crumbs, slipped sodas cans, and chewed up pizza slices. He knew was going to have pay for his share. He grabbed his boy by his superman underroos. Bobby looked like an insect waving its tentacles. Bobby’s underwear stretched to its limit. The father started spanking and then punching his child, repeatedly. Bobby pleaded for him to stop, and then Bobby started to speak in something that sounded like tongues at a revival meeting. Bobby screamed and screamed, then he just stopped, as if he ran out of voice. He was awake and silent. His eyes looked straight ahead as if he was at church. He then made eye contact to all of the other children. His mouth clinched tight. Some of the other adults after awhile stepped in, but too late.
“It’s enough,” they told Bobbie’s Dad. As if “hell” and “enough” belong together.

It was an era when people let TV raise their children. His dad’s anger from losing at the blackjack tables and at his failed life discharged itself onto Bobby’s body. Bobby took it, as he always must have. Bobby could not sit down without pain for the rest of the trip.

“Serves you right.” was the bitter balm for his pain.

The anger, violence, and disappointment with life passed from father to son. None of us kids said anything about the beating. I felt for Bobby, but I said nothing to him or to anyone else. I believed in the lie of silence in the face of violence. Throughout the storm of fists and slaps, Chris and I just sat in the quiet out of our fears. We tried to remain invisible, for dread of facing a similar beating. Everything and everyone was silent except the screams and the slapping sounds of pounded young flesh, and then just the beating sounds. After the severity of the beating, none of the rest of us saw punishment from our parents.

Yes, we heard small lectures about our irresponsibility, but that was the extent of it, no grounding, no spanking … nothing. I realize that Bobby took the beating for the rest of us. The other parents seeing the beating of Bobby could not expose us to any more hurt. The built-up anger had dissipated into Bobby’s body and for the moment, violence was silent. Our punishment and suffering, we witnessed Evil and were forbidden to speak of it. Our punishment was more than enough for our crimes.

I have come back to this event many times. I have tried to understand what Bobby went through, even though I know I can never really understand. Why was he silent? Knowing his father was an alcoholic, what must have Bobby gone through is unfathomable to me. Later in life, Bobby retained his sense of silence. In his dark brown eyes, there is an italic phrase of if only you knew. He would not say anything, but in his slight unexplained smirk, he would say everything. His wounded self became a women magnet, but no woman could penetrate into his eyes. He would either abandon or torture them. Movie stars, models, and so many women tried to enter his eyes, but they were helpless to penetrate his silence. An artist and professional musician, no amount self-expression could release the tension around his mouth. Other people became a hell for him. Once he offered to go out into the desert and fry our brains with whatever drug he could find. I declined. I do not think he was not being serious, but the emotional pain he long to flee from was serious. He wanted to escape from himself. Suffering is a nation. Bobby was born a citizen of this nation, and his life became a search out of this country or an exploitation of suffering’s landscape, never his home, but always his place of residence. He showed me the limits of my ability to help another.

I have considered Bobby’s dad as well. He was boisterous. He was a born entertainer. He was a drunk. He always dreamed of being an opera singer in Germany. He had the talent to make it. He would only make it as far as the chorus of a small German company. He was too fond of partying to ever have the commitment that his dream needed. He was the kind of man that when you met him you like him, but knew he would fail in his dreams. This made him angry. Like Achilles, his anger busted out in fits of violence.

Once, he came with my mother and stepfather to visit me in Vail. I did not expect him, and was not to please with the surprise. I was in my mid-twenties. He was in his late fifties. There was no way at this point for his career to succeed; he was an official failure. He had the alcoholic’s contempt for life, though he was still skilled at entertainment. I had gotten a free room from the hotel I was working at, and the three of them: my mother, stepfather, and Bobby’s day proceed to make an impression. Bobby’s dad answered the door naked, his big belly almost hiding his genitals. The girl working room service nervously laughed and handed him a tray of eggs and bacon. He hit on her. What she told our coworkers about this incident I can only imagine.

I took them to hear folk music at the local hot spot. There a couple of guys recycle old Jimmy Buffet, Bob Dylan, and the various songs from the sixties and seventies. Bobby’s dad asked them at the break if he could do a set. He then filled the little place with his big voice, and at the end of the set, he turn his back on the crowd, and pulled down his pants, and filled the room with his bigger mammoth cheeks. The crowd cheered, as I quietly try to remain silent. He needed the audience and at the same time he hated them. He was violent to the world and world still only laughed at him. He failed even in his hatred. The bridge between him and his life is too big to cross.

Thinking back to that night of the beating. We, children were forced into the silence. What could we do? The silence forced me to contemplate Bobby and violence. The other children, because of the silence, became part of the conspiracy of suffering. Sitting ridged, I could feel the ridgedness of Chris’s being. Bobby dangled in front of us, and we stared. We were not the oppressor. We were not the oppressed. We were the crowd with a big butt in our face.


Bruce said...

Very well written! How does the idea of personal responsibility for violence square with God's sovereignty? How does your story square with the 4th commandment? There is violence and pain around us every day. We don't have enough human resources to fix everything that is broken. How do we as individuals, churches, and nations decide what evils should be fixed? How do we do it without breaking the bank?

Tito Tinajero said...

Thanks for your response. First the question is too big to answer. God's sovereignty and human responsibility is found somewhere in our relationship to god and each other.

On the comment on the 4th I am assuming that you mean honor thy mother and father... (there is disagreement on the 4th some say it the commandment about sabbath and others say honor parents) ... Truth always honors another.

Finally, we are not God. We are called to love God and love neighbor and live to where we live, and not to fix the world. Many times fixing a problem leads to more problems. Witness to the reality of our lives as believers.

I hope you caught the irony of the story, violence reigns with constricted silence. Yet, I am telling the story, breaking the silence.

Christy said...

Thank you for sharing your thoughts-----found your blog through Sojurners and its really great----thank you!