| CAPTURE HILL #49|
By Allen Long My brother Danny and I grew up in Arlington, Virginia, in the Sixties and Seventies. Although this was a period of significant social turmoil because of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War protests, and the women’s liberation crusade—my heart goes out to all of these causes—this was also a time of great economic prosperity, and one might think white kids of well-educated parents in a prosperous suburb of D.C. within walking distance of top-rated schools had it made.Home, Bittersweet, Home
Danny and I were physically abused by our parents. In 1962, the summer I was almost six, my mother invited a woman friend from our church over for lunch. Mrs. Cunningham brought along her son Webster, a red-haired boy slightly younger than me who was infamous for leaving a wide swath of destruction in his wake. My mother warned me ahead of time, “If Webster harms anything in this house, I’m holding you personally responsible, and your father will blister your bottom.”
This was no idle threat. The first time my father spanked me with a store-bought paddle, he hit me so hard the paddle snapped in half. After that, he fashioned a thick oak paddle. He would strike our bottoms about a dozen times with nearly all of his strength.
Needless to say, when Webster arrived, I watched him with a keen eye. He wore a white cowboy hat with red piping, and he carried a large metal toy six shooter. He ran through our house, his gun nearly gouging divots in a dozen walls and pieces of furniture. With heroic efforts, I protected our house and furnishings—until I had to use the bathroom. I peed as fast as I could, but when I returned to the living room, Webster had set his pistol on my father’s prized stereo, the one inside the gorgeous mahogany cabinet he polished daily. Just then, my mother and Mrs. Cunningham entered the room and saw Webster, me, and his metal gun on the hi-fi. My mother’s eyes filled with fury. Of course, I pleaded my case, but it was clear I was paddle fodder.
That evening when my father arrived, he burst into my room with a roar. When I wasn’t in plain sight, he knew I was hiding in my closet. He reached in and jerked me out by the arm, which I was afraid would come out of its socket. Then the second part of the punishment ritual began. My father grabbed me by the back of the head and ground my forehead into his while he stared into my eyes with utter hatred and growled. This might have broken some kids’ wills—Danny had a particularly hard time with the head grind—but I knew my father was insane with anger and hatred at that moment, and I returned his gaze with hatred of my own. As my father dragged me to the bathroom, my mother said, “Take off his pajamas so it will hurt more.”
My father complied, then bent me over his knee and spanked the bejesus out of me. The blows were unbelievably painful and I was afraid he’d break my arm or fingers if I tried to shield my bottom. He struck me two dozen times.
Why did our parents treat us so cruelly? I believe, at some level, our father is insane, probably because he was abused by his mentally ill mother and inherited her affliction, although he’s led a highly functional and successful life. He recently turned ninety. When I was home for a visit, he got into an argument with our mother. After she marched stiff-backed into the kitchen to cook dinner, he pointed at her, showed me a familiar look of insane hatred, and gleefully gestured strangling her. Danny and I can’t imagine why our mother encouraged our father to beat us.
Luckily, when our mother wasn’t directing our father to thrash us, she was attentive, loving, and kind, and Danny and I pretended her alter-ego didn’t exist.
But this wasn’t the only darkness we experienced at home. We had an evil teenage baby sitter named Ryann who locked us in the basement as soon as our parents left the house. Then she’d raid the refrigerator and gab on the phone for hours with her girlfriends. She’d let us out just before our parents returned home. Every time Danny and I reported these events to our parents, they shook their heads and said, “Wow, that’s quite a story. I’m sure Ryann would never do anything like that.”
Once, when Ryann locked us in the basement, Danny and I pretended that Danny had fallen down the basement stairs and was seriously injured. When Ryann opened the door to check on us, we charged her and pushed past, but not before she kneed Danny and drove his head into the metal strike plate in the doorframe. Danny’s scalp bled so profusely Ryann had to put his head under the bathtub faucet to wash away the blood. When my parents came home, Ryann told them we’d badly misbehaved.
As soon as Ryann left, we told them what happened and showed them the bloody knot on Danny’s head. They dismissed this as some kind of cheap trick, and our father beat the daylights out of us.Even the homes of our relatives weren’t necessarily safe. Once, when we visited a nearby elderly aunt and uncle, our tall and gruff-voiced uncle said to Danny, “Come down the hallway with me and let’s look out the window.”
Danny got up from where he sat in the living room with my aunt, our mother, and me and followed our uncle down the musty apartment corridor. When they arrived at the window, our uncle said, “Want to feel my pocket knife?”
“Sure,” Danny said.
Our uncle indicated the knife was in his right pocket and it was okay for Danny to reach in. Danny did so but found only a hole.
“Keep going, you’re almost there,” our uncle said.
Danny located the knife, but it was surprisingly soft.
“This knife feels funny,” Danny said.
“It’s okay,” our uncle said. “Squeeze it.”
Danny obliged but suddenly realized something was wrong. He fled to the living room. Like many of Danny’s darker memories, this one ends abruptly, the dénouement blocked out. ***
Danny recently told me he had horrific nightmares as a kid. So did I. In one of my worst ones, terrifying monsters march up the basement stairs with booming footsteps while the eerie music from Perry Mason plays. I run to our kitchen to make sure the basement door’s locked. Sometimes I secure the door just as the monsters reach the top of the steps, and sometimes the monsters burst through just as I arrive. I’d wake, screaming in terror.
In the Sixties, there was a horror story going around about a boy who cries out whenever his parents open the basement door. Assuming their son’s a neurotic coward, his parents tie him to a chair, open the basement door, and leave him there shrieking while they go out to dinner. When they return home, the house is silent. They’re pleased their “cure” has worked—until they discover their son has been ripped to shreds by whatever evil creature lurks in the basement.
In another nightmare, I’m hiding from my father at the back of my bedroom closet. Suddenly, I realize there’s something in there with me, an invisible monster called the Nozzer that buzzes like hair clippers and crawls all over my helpless body while I try unsuccessfully to cry out.
In real life, when our parents were angry with Danny and me, they sometimes drove us to the barber shop and ordered the barber to cut off all of our hair to humiliate us. Enter the Nozzer.
I recall two other recurring nightmares. In one, an invisible angry ghost plucks me out of bed at night and shakes me like a rag doll while I levitate above my bed. In the other, an evil circus strongman grabs me in the hallway at night while I’m trying to reach the bathroom and bounces me repeatedly off the ceiling in terrifying slow motion, as if time has slowed and I’m caught there forever.
Despite the darkness that enshrouded our home, Danny and I still managed to have many bright childhood moments. Our many pleasures included listening to the Beatles and other rock ‘n’ roll, Saturday morning cartoons, comic books, baseball cards, watching Star Trek, Batman, James Bond, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea on TV and playing with the associated toys. Other favorite TV shows included The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Swimming, hanging out with friends, watching Universal Studio monster movies, and reading Famous Monsters magazine provided other successful diversions from our dark predicament. We also loved the psychedelic colors, posters, black lights, incense, peace symbols, and lava lamps that pervaded the Sixties. Using the same vivid imaginations that drove our play, we pretended our parents were normal and our dreams were sweet.
The Old Neighborhood
Our neighborhood offered many interesting diversions, such as Mr. Schmidt, who slicked his hair back and bore a thrilling and uncanny resemblance to Lon Chaney Jr.’s Phantom of the Opera. Also, the sidewalks and streets were filled with kids piloting bikes, trikes, red wagons, and groups of children engaged in games, such as whiffle ball and kick the can. On summer evenings, the adults smoked, laughed, and conversed in the driveway of our next door neighbors. Overall, it was a pleasant place, but it also exhibited darker aspects.
On an evening that was sweltering hot and we didn’t yet have air conditioning, I tried to cool my room by opening the windows. In the middle of the night, I woke to the sounds of a woman or teenage girl screaming and a siren fast approaching. Through the window screen, I saw several figures huddled farther down the block, illuminated by the flashing lights of a police car.
The next morning, I asked my mother what had happened. She said she guessed Mr. and Mrs. Callahan had gotten into another loud argument and someone had called the police. As soon as I finished breakfast, I headed straight for where I’d seen the police cruiser.
Chuck, our neighborhood bully who lived next door to the wife beater and his family, stood at my destination.
“What happened last night?” I asked. “Did old man Callahan beat up his wife again?”
Chuck shook his head. “Surprisingly not,” he said. “Mr. Phillips across the street started whaling on his daughter Vanessa, and she ran out of the house and stood here screaming until the police came. He cut her up badly. Look.”
Chuck pointed to a bloody bone on the sidewalk swarming with ants.
I stared in horrified fascination, imagining Mr. Phillips chasing Vanessa around their small cottage with a butcher’s cleaver.
Many years later, I realized Chuck had placed a beef bone on the sidewalk and waited patiently for a sucker like me to come along asking questions.
It Takes a Village
Like our neighborhood, our community was an interesting and generally benign place; however, it, too, offered up several dark experiences. A few months after the beef bone incident, my mother took me to the dentist. She remained in the waiting room while a dental hygienist led me into an exam room and helped me into the dental chair. I was just there for a cleaning and exam, so I relaxed and checked out the unfamiliar equipment. A few minutes later, the dentist came in, a tall man with thinning hair and a serious expression.
“Hi, I’m doctor Jerkens,” he said. “I’m just finishing up with another patient. Then I’ll have a look at your teeth. In the meantime, would you do me a great favor?”
“Yes, sir,” I said. “What is it?”
He reached into the top of a closet and pulled out the largest hypodermic needle I’d ever seen. It looked like it was meant for a horse. “If you’d be kind enough to hold this for me,” he said, “I’d really appreciate it.”
He placed the syringe in my already-trembling hands and stepped out of the room. When he returned in five minutes, I was a quivering blob of protoplasm, and he eyed me with cruel satisfaction.
Bastard!My father’s favorite sports were surfing, cliff diving, and toboggan racing, which he watched on the Wide World of Sports on Sunday afternoons after a weekend of yard work and home maintenance and repair. My father was so athletically disinclined in high school that the administration looked the other way when he substituted chorus for his required physical education classes.
As one might imagine, when I developed an interest in baseball around the age of six, my father wasn’t in a good position to teach me about the game, even if he’d wanted to, so my mother enrolled me in a baseball clinic at our local YMCA, which I greatly enjoyed. Soon after, my brother Danny and I attended a Saturday program for kids there.
Danny and I ended up in separate groups, which were led by counselors who were in their late teens and early twenties. My counselor’s name was Butch, and he was a stocky, muscular guy with blue beard shadow and slightly insane brown eyes. At first, I liked him because he was handsome and made up thrilling games. His favorite was Capture Hill #49. He advised us kids in a helpful manner as we built a gigantic, multi-story fort out of all the folding tables and chairs owned by the YMCA, a considerable number. Then everyone but Butch climbed inside the fort.
“Okay,” he said. “Here’re the rules. You’re in a fort on Hill #49. I’m trying to capture it. I’m going to throw this ball at the fort. If I hit you, you have to come out and be my prisoner of war. If you want to desert, you have to run to the safe zone behind me. While you’re running, you’re fair game. If I hit you, you’re also my prisoner. The game ends when the fort is empty. Understand?”
Butch wound up and hurled the red rubber ball, which was a little smaller than a basketball and inflated to the max.
BOOM! Suddenly, two chairs blew away from the fort and a table collapsed. Butch quickly recovered the ball and fired it into the “hole” he’d created. A boy screamed as the ball smashed into his face. BOOM! The hole widened, and two boys made a break for it. One sprinted and slid into the safe zone, but the other kid took a ball to the chest and went down, coughing and crying. BOOM! The game continued. A few kids made it to safety, but the rest of us were injured by flying chairs, falling tables, or the ball. Although I knew Capture Hill #49 was wrong because some kids got really hurt and upset, this was the most exciting game I’d ever played! Compared to the beatings Danny and I received at home, this was a restful night’s sleep.
However, at least one set of parents complained to the YMCA’s director. She didn’t fire Butch, but she banned Capture Hill #49. On the following Saturday, the YMCA was short a counselor, so Danny’s group and mine were combined under Butch, who was bored and angry that his creative genius had been stymied. He spun a three-foot long orange rubber snake around a beefy hand and glared at us.
“Okay,” he said. “I’ve made up another really cool game, but first I want to know which of you little ankle-biters ratted me out.”
He stared at each of us in turn until his gaze fell upon a slight kid named Henderson who had twitchy brown eyes and a pulsing blue vein on his forehead.
“I think it was you, Henderson,” Butch said. “You’re a nervous little freak and always on the verge of tears.”
“No, I—,” Henderson said, just before Butch snapped the snake at his stomach. Henderson screamed and dropped to the floor, crying. We were in a remote corner of the gym, and the floor was deep with dust bunnies. Henderson coughed violently.
Danny leaned over to help Henderson up, and Butch wielded the snake and inflicted a large welt on Danny’s back where his T-shirt rode up.
“You leave my brother alone!” I shouted. I went down with a snake flick to my right side.
“Enough!” Butch yelled. “Everybody up and at attention!”
We did as we were told.
We stood there for five minutes until the crying subsided.
“Okay, that’s more like it,” Butch said. “We’re going outside now—I’ve thought of a game even better than Capture Hill #49. I hope nobody’s afraid of falling out of trees.”
As we filed toward the door that led outside, Danny and I glanced at each other and formed a plan. We slackened our pace until we were at the end of the line. Once Butch and most of the other kids were outside, we slowly backtracked and exited the other side of the gym as if we were headed for the bathrooms. Once we were in the main part of the YMCA, we ran out the front door to a phone booth on the grounds and used our snack money to call our mom and ask her to come get us.
She arrived a few minutes later. Luckily, when she saw our welts and dusty clothes, she believed our story, and we never returned to the YMCA. School Daze
The final dimension to our young lives was school. Often, it was fun and rewarding. However, at other times, it could be strange and dangerous. For example, I liked my first grade teacher, but one day she was out ill, and we had a substitute teacher who said, “You know, I have friends who are parents with a small son. Whenever he misbehaves, they dip his penis in alcohol.”
I have no idea what inspired her to make such an inappropriate statement, but it worried me for years. I figured if our parents could subject us to severe beatings, what was to stop them from sexually abusing us?
My second grade teacher was grandmotherly but odd. At naptime, she told us all the molecules of the universe were pressing down on our eyes and we needed to shut them for protection. Once, when she escorted us to our table in the lunch room, she tilted her head at me and told our sixth-grade table monitor in a voice I wasn’t supposed to hear, “Keep an eye on this one. I think he’s trouble.” To this day, I have no memory of misbehaving in her class.
My third-grade teacher was nice, but my fourth-grade teacher constantly screamed at us and often fled our classroom in tears and sought refuge in the teachers’ lounge for long periods of time. Sometimes we were left unattended, and sometimes a kindly teacher would come to our classroom and urge us to please be on our best behavior with Mrs. Carter. As far as I remember, we were good kids and tried our best, but Mrs. Carter succumbed to a nervous breakdown several months before the school year ended. We had a substitute teacher for the remainder of the year, and we got along with her fine.
On the first day of Mrs. Scarsdale’s fifth-grade class, she said, “Children, I’ve made a list of all the students in this class who were also in Mrs. Carter’s class last year. I’m giving you fair warning. If your name’s on this list and I see any misbehavior, I’m going to get even with you for causing my poor friend to have a nervous breakdown.”
I can’t speak for my classmates, but Mrs. Scarsdale certainly got her revenge on me. I already had one strike against me because I’d been in Mrs. Carter’s class. Second, I made friends with an unhappy and unruly boy named Randy whom Mrs. Scarsdale strongly disliked. Third, Randy and I both developed crushes on a beautiful girl in our class named Anna, and Mrs. Scarsdale deeply disapproved. Fourth, I was a bit of a class clown, such as the time she told us we needed to master our fear of long division, and I said, or else your fear will master you. At the time, I had no idea why I took on this role, but, looking back, I realize I felt driven to lead the battle against Mrs. Scarsdale because she was full of anger and hatred like my parents and had threatened us on the first day of class. Striking out at Mrs. Scarsdale was much safer for me than attacking my abusive parents.
Every six weeks, Mrs. Scarsdale sent a report card home saying that my behavior was unacceptable, and each time my father gave me a severe spanking. I soon reformed, shutting up in class and focusing on my studies. Still, the negative report cards and beatings continued for the rest of the school year.
That year, we were the “smart” fifth-grade class, and the top six brightest students left class every day to attend a four-hour seminar for gifted kids. I yearned to be accepted into the program. For one thing, the seminar participants carried around books I wanted to read, such as Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Second, the program would allow me to escape Mrs. Scarsdale’s evil reign for half of every day. And my ambition wasn’t far-fetched—at some point, I’d been told that I was next in line for the seminar program, provided a space opened up.
One day, long after I’d reformed my class behavior, Mrs. Scarsdale announced that one of the seminar kids named Billy Taylor was moving to Houston, and his slot in the program would be filled by a student named Frank Benson. She looked at me with triumph as she made this announcement.
Later, Mrs. Scarsdale cornered me, her steely eyes floating eerily behind the thick lenses of her glasses, and said, “I told you I’d get even.”
When I attended the first day of class in sixth grade, I discovered Mrs. Scarsdale’s final act of vengeance: she’d placed me in the “dumb” class.
Luckily, my sixth grade teacher recognized I was bright and skilled at language arts; she encouraged me to write a short story every week instead of completing the standard spelling, grammar, and punctuation assignments.Seventh grade was the year school became dangerous. Our health/physical education teacher was Mr. Barrett, a burly Jamaican who’d played professional football until a knee injury permanently benched him. He wore a large gold watch that might have been a Rolex, dressed in expensive sports warm-up clothes, carried a thick roll of cash in his jacket pocket, and brooked no nonsense.
One day in health class, he told us, “I’m going down to the office. This room better remain totally silent, or there’ll be hell to pay.”
I focused on reading the relevant chapter in our health book, but a kid named Mark Freeman launched into an imitation of Mr. Barrett threatening us. Several classmates laughed. Then Mr. Barrett exploded into the room and grabbed Mark by the collar and jerked him to his feet.
“I told you there’d be hell to pay!” he shouted. “Get into the push-up position!”
Mark complied, still grinning slightly because he was muscular and figured punishment push-ups were no big deal.
Mr. Barret closed the door, lifted the pool-cue shaped pointer off the blackboard chalk holder, and savagely beat Mark’s butt and legs. Mark started to scream, but Mr. Barrett said, “You scream, boy, and I’ll beat you within an inch of your life.”
We watched in horrified fascination as Mr. Barrett hit Mark a dozen times with vicious blows. The next week, our health unit ended, and we became a P.E. class again. In the showers after a game of flag football, we observed the angry red welts on Mark’s bottom and legs.
“You tell your parents?” a classmate said.
Mark looked around, terrified. “Are you out of your fucking mind?” he said.
Many other kids met Mark’s fate, and Mr. Barrett was universally hated by his students. When Mr. Barrett decided he’d established complete dominion over us, he made a habit of leaving his roll of cash on his office desk to demonstrate we were too frightened to take it. However, one day someone stole it, and a furious Mr. Barrett was unable to weed out the culprit.
When we had seventh grade PE class, we shared the sports fields and locker room with Mr. Maple’s eighth grade PE class. There was a not-too-bright runty blonde wise-ass kid in that class that Mr. Maple and his students called Roach. One day, just for fun, Mr. Maple convinced Roach’s classmates to hold him down while he sprayed Roach with an entire can of an insecticide called No-Roach. Unlike Mark Freeman, Roach complained to his parents, who made an outraged call to our principal, and Mr. Maple was put on probation and suspended without pay for a week.
Finally, when I played on our high school’s junior varsity football team, we had a three-hundred pound foul-tempered coach who wore cleats and leapt into the air and landed on the feet of my classmates whenever they made mistakes in practice. Luckily, he never observed any of mine. Like Mr. Barrett’s beatings, no one ever reported this physical abuse.
So that’s the type of child abuse that was permissible back then in the Arlington County school system, supposedly one of the finest in the United States.The Board of Education
Sometimes us Arlingtonian kids of the Sixties and Seventies enjoyed small victories over our adult oppressors, but most of the time the adults won, hands-down. However, we did secure one larger-scale victory, and, oddly enough, and it was precipitated by Roach.
During his senior year, he dated a short and pretty redhead named Amy Weaver. One day during lunch hour, Roach and Amy kissed while they sat on a grassy hill near the high school’s main entrance. Well, one thing led to another, and suddenly there was a flash of a condom wrapper in the bright sunlight, and the two young lovers were doing the horizontal mambo.
Almost instantly, a crowd of surprised but delighted students formed a dense circle around the base of the hill and shouted, “Go!” with each manly thrust. As our cheers reached a frantic climax, Mr. Wharton, our school’s vice-principal, who spanked kids’ bare bottoms with a giant oak paddle known as The Board of Education, sprinted out of the school, yelling for us to clear a path so he could separate the young lovers. But we crushed forward, and he did not pass. About the Author:Allen Long is the author of Less than Human: A Memoir (Black Rose Writing, 2016). His memoirs have appeared or are forthcoming in Broad Street, Copperfield Review, Eunoia Review, Hawaii Pacific Review, Scholars & Rogues, Stepping Stones, and Verdad. An assistant editor at Narrative Magazine since 2007, Allen lives with his wife near San Francisco.