You never know what a child is gonna pick-up from any situation or story. But as a child, I somehow picked up a small chunk of strength that some Viet Nam POWs left in their tracks.
I’m not claiming to say that I inherited or adopted this character. You can’t just go hunting for golden nuggets like that and make them part of your being. But like a typical kid, I never stopped absorbing, pondering and concluding bits of power and knowledge from such things.
Being a 1960-model, I had ample exposure to nightly news and stories from Viet Nam. I’d watch the violence, the tears, the terror. I’d wonder “how” and “why” and “what else could be wrong with this place you dropped me on God?” But I had to set my Nestle Chocolate Milk down and watch in stunned amazement at the likely horror of being a P.O.W.
“A Prisoner Of War? You mean they can’t come home? You mean they are locked in those horrible bamboo cages??? For how long??? Is uncle going to one of those places? Do they take the riverboat guys prisoner?”
My young gray matter had lots of time and space with which to interpret and extrapolate here. I was truly distressed by this POW concept. Little did I know that I would use what I learned, and sooner than one might think.
Alcohol and cigarettes were adult-staples back when the Apollo program kept me riveted...right along with the war. He was a very successful industrialist. He invented things that changed the way the world lives and eats. He was a rock-star without qualifiers. He was also my father...and he was a rage-aholic-extraordinare.
When he was not traveling the world, he was in the smoke-filled office and industrial-plants where he made it all happen. When he’d come home to the house, there was no dog to kick when the day went badly. No...my dog Lucy would take-off immediately upon hearing the car door close a bit too hard. But he did hit! He hit the bottle. He hit me. He kicked. He kicked me so hard my feet would leave the floor. I worked diligently to perfect a landing that did not involve my ass. My back just could not take any more hardwood floors. I quickly learned that socks are never a good idea. Clammy, bare boy-feet hold traction much better than socks.
Sometimes it would take a week to get the rectal bleeding to stop from that other thing I had to keep secret. Place-kicking Robbie would re-open internal wounds and ring my innards like Big Ben.
He was especially talented at bringing great horror to the beating events. Pretty much every time, I would think I was going to die. Yeah...pretty much every time. A few times, when I got much older...like 11 or something, I was so back-to-the-wall entrapped, that I demanded that God take me...that Superman finally earn his pay, or that a town cop would stop-by to sell those tickets, right when I needed him.
Didn’t the neighbors hear this? Yes, of course they did. I screamed bloody murder. When I begged for him to stop, I did it as loud as possible. Won’t they do something? No. No freaking way. Eventually he did not even hide it from the neighbors. In fact, he took every opportunity to beat me in public to show them that he was keeping me in-check following the bad things I did. He loved the predictable reactions I’d have. A slap to my face...I mean a “man-sized” slap to my scrawny face, always yielded pee. The crotch of my jeans or shorts would go dark and then flow...right in front of whomever was outside at the time. I would not be allowed to run-off and hide from all those smirking faces. I had to stay and ensure that I “got the message.” But the cool thing was, he really did not want to come in contact with pee. So kicking was never gonna happen at that point.
I’d wait to be ordered to bed, as any early departure would have not been tolerated. The beating and terror had to be completed first. When the release order eventually came up from hell, I’d rush to my bedroom to strip out of pee-soaked everything and try to air-dry enough to put on pajamas. But no matter what, actually “going to bed” was simply not an option.
I had been woken-up in the midst of a slap-fest a few times. There’s no more unique a horror than waking-up to find your body under attack --- deadly attack in my young mind. I was not opposed to death, but I would not tolerate waking-up in the midst of my own murder...in a puddle I did not even know I made.
The bedroom was where I employed the power and strength of the POW. I stood! I stood in the center of the room, far from the bed. From the center, I could not, I would not be tempted to sit, then lay-down, then sleep. No! I resolved to stand, face the door and be ready...be awake...be on guard and not be vulnerable. Sleep makes you too vulnerable! Plus, sleeping with a bleeder was not an option either. I could keep a wad of t.p. or Kleenex back there and control the situation...but only if awake and standing. God only know what would happen if he ever found out about that other stuff.
I knew and fully embraced the concept that “if a POW could stand for days taking beatings in their weak, starving state; I, a well-fed, healthy little kid could do the same, hands-down! The refrain of “if they can do, I can do it” would run through my mind the entire night... “if they can do, I can do it,” “if they can do, I can do it.”
Now I had to stand-still mind you! Any shift of weight could creak the floor. My parents room was right under mine. He’d rage, yell and swear all night long sometimes. I’d try to figure out what he just threw. Did it hit Mom with that? No. Musta been his bathroom floor. So if he heard a creak from my floor...holy God! But if they can do this, I can do this....right? And the nine-hour night would seem like five-weeks.
I watched far too many sunrises as a POW-boy. I still cannot see the sun rise without instantly going back to standing in wet pajamas, or naked or something in-between. I see that sun rise and wonder how to get the wet towel I’d pee into through the night, out to the upstairs hamper.
And today, when I see that sunrise, I think back on what my fellow POWs gave to me. They helped a little guy survive...survive at least perceived murders. I see a little 7, 8, 14-year-old boy who was pretty darn strong, and I owe him this account of him carrying me through one very dark and scary prison camp.