I was born with a birth defect called pyloric stenosis. A valve below my stomach closed off completely when I was about 2 and a half months old. For a couple of weeks I threw up virtually everything I ate. I became dehydrated and weak and my Mom took me to a local doctor. The doc rushed me straight to the hospital for emergency surgery just a couple of hours later. I was too weak and too young for a general anesthetic, so they did the whole procedure with a local. A nurse told my grandmother I screamed the whole time and the surgeon had to cut between gasps for air. Everyone said my survival was a miracle. Another day and I might not have made it. As a kid I sometimes wondered if there was a reason I had survived when the odds had been so against it.
My Dad spent most of my toddler years in prison. Mom ironed clothes, baby sat my cousin Tony and worked in a sewing factory to keep food on the table. My first brush with death was when we got word my cousin Tony had died of SIDS. I was about 4 and remember how upset everyone was. I knew Tony wouldn't come to play with us any more and I felt a sense of loss.
Then Dad got out of prison and promptly ran off with a woman he'd gotten pregnant. He divorced Mom and married Buddy because he wanted to give the child his name. Meanwhile, my brother Donny was born, the youngest of Mom's three. Apparently Donny was born in time to have Dad's name.
I remember Mom was pretty torn up during the divorce. We walked downtown from our little apartment to sign some papers once and I remember she cried all the way home. We were pretty well destitute, and bounced around the family for a while till they found someone for Mom and she remarried. We had all the usual adjustment problems adjusting to a new Stepfather, but managed to muddle through somehow. I don't know how Mom held up.
The very first memory I have was riding on the shoulders of a family friend at the Louisiana State Fair in Shreveport, La. My family lived in Monroe, about a hundred miles away and had come there to stay with my parents' friends "Don and Louise" so we could all go to the fair together. Don an Louise aren't their real naes. They are both dead now, but they do have kids and grandkids who aren't. The trip to Shreveport was the first memory I have as a child. It was as if my mind "woke up" in the midst of bright lights, shouting, carnival music and odd smells of the state fair.
I was riding on "Uncle" Don's shoulders most of the day. When it was over, we went back to their home to spend the night. Looking back on it, I don't really think it was the bright lights of the fair that woke me up. The noisy trip to the fair just became part of the memory that was burned into my mind the next morning when I woke to find my self in bed with my red corduroy pants and underwear pulled down to my knees and "Uncle" Don in bed next to me touching me in a place I had only recently discovered myself. Somehow, though I was hardly three years old, I knew something didn't feel right about it. Uncle Don kept telling me he loved me, but he seemed strange and he frightened me.
Mom added my sister Gina and brother Doug and then got pregnant again. I was in middle school by then and my sister Debbie, Donnie and I all picked up the German measles during an epidemic that swept through the United States and my school. We gave it to Mom. I remember helping care for Craig after he was born. Mom didn't tell us about the hole in his heart, but I do remember Craig seeing a lot of doctors in the first few months of his life. I learned how to change diapers and feed him. It's funny how when you do stuff like that, you really grow fond of a child. When Mom and my step-dad came home from a trip to the hospital without him, we were all devastated. It was my first experience with grief and I yelled a lot at God that weekend.
I was so happy when Daddy announced it was time to go home. My Dad was a good provider, drove trucks and supplemented our income by planting vegetable gardens. He was also hot tempered and well on his way to becoming an alcoholic. My mother had suffered a disease called erysipelas as a girl, before there were anti-biotics. The fever had lasted for days and the family said she was never the same afterward. She had to quit school and to walk again and always afterward had a very childlike mind.
Daddy was the parent in the family. Mama was our playmate. The night after the fair, I wanted to tell her what had happened, but I was afraid she'd tell my father and that scared me more than what had happened. Even then I already feared his temper.
Shortly after Craig's death, the church bible study lady came 'round and signed me up for Bible studies. I got 100% on every lesson and was convinced my church understood the Bible correctly. I just wasn't sure I believed in God - particularly not after he'd let my baby brother die. The lady Bible teacher expressed shock, when I refused to be baptized. I wouldn't make a commitment like that, I told her. Not till I was sure.
As a kid, I attended public school. It was where the kids went that got kicked out of church school in my town. I didn't kicked out. We just couldn't afford it. So I spent 10 years at Keene Public school, where I made good grades, wore thick glasses and enjoyed school. I might have just as well worn a big target on my back. I was hated by the assorted thugs and bullies that made up a significant number of my classmates and went home with bruises pretty regularly. It didn't matter, though. At school there was a library and books and studies that opened a window to my world. My kid brother and I lived in the tops of the oak trees in our back yard and enjoyed a vantage point that, for me, brought safety, privacy and peace. I sometimes wonder whether I was looking for God up there or something.
I kept the secret for years. When I had turned 7, Uncle Don and Aunt Louise visited us in Monroe. From the moment they arrived, I avoided Uncle Don like the plague. Despite my best efforts, I found myself alone with him in the car headed for the local A&W Root Beer stand. His approach was more apprehensive this time and he used words I knew were not meant for a child's ears. I slid over as close to the passenger side car door as I could trying to keep as much distance between us as possible.
When we got home, I shot straight out of the car and ran to my mama. I stuck to her like glue till they finally left. That night I told my mother, not only what had happened in the car, but also about the state fair trip.
Mama listened to my story. She didn't seem particularly shocked by it or even surprised. She said she believed me, but I must never ever tell Daddy. But I wanted Daddy to know. I wanted him to go beat the snot out of Uncle Don. I wanted to be a child again, but Mama said, "No!" And that was the end of it - for her anyway.
I cried myself to sleep. It was the first time in my life I remember saying a real prayer. It was simple but sincere.
"Dear Jesus, help me."
I didn't know a thing about the Bible, but I believed Jesus was real and that He could be my best friend and my new Daddy and that I could tell Him anything. With that knowledge I was able to sleep at last.
I survived public school with only minimal scars and a vast thirst for knowledge. My mom talked me into going to the town's parochial high school. I went along with the idea because she seemed so set on it. I was working part time at a broom and mop factory in town, so I could afford to help pay for my tuition. The Academy turned out to be a much nicer place than public school. There were cliques I didn't belong to, of course, since I had come from the poor end of town, but nobody beat me up or threatened me and that was refreshing. The only bully they had was an amateur up next to the future inmates I had grown up with down at the public school. I simply brushed him and his blustering aside. At this school the principal really did care about justice and bullying was not tolerated. I loved my new school, though I was probably the only openly agnostic student there.
That summer I began spending time with Mamaw and Papaw, my maternal grandparents. I loved them both, but I adored my grandmother. Papaw went to church every Sunday and most Wednesdays found him in prayer meeting. Mamaw never went to church, though she was the most devout Christian I ever knew. She was kind, gentle but firm and read her Bible every night along with the quarterly that the ladies from the Alto Baptist Church Sunday School brought her every 13 weeks. She kept an extra Bible in her room on the night stand. I think she kept it there in case I showed an interest in joining her worship sessions. I think it was red.
One night I did. I started reading very early, but I needed a lot of help with the big words. Mamaw patiently helped me master the sometimes difficult language of the Bible. She always said her prayers silently and so I did too.
I learned how to talk to God in my mind. I memorized some scriptures and included the Lord's Prayer so that by the end of the summer, I would at least have some of God's word safely stored in my mind. Their home was a refuge. No arguing, no yelling, no whippings and no foul language. At Mamaw's and Papaw's I never heard God's name used in vain. I hated to leave when it came time to go back to school.
Mamaw and I would say our goodbyes two weeks before Daddy came to pick me up to take me home. We both instinctively knew that it would be bad to cry or show sadness in front of Daddy. I remember how miserable it was, sitting in that back seat as we drove farther and farther away from Mamaw. I dared not cry. I showed no sadness for fear of Daddy's temper. I learned early that survival depended on my ability to bury my emotions.
There was a moment at the end of my junior year, when I was seventeen years old in which everything came together. As an agnostic, my Bible teacher despaired of me. I made A's in Bible but refused to join the church. I didn't ask a lot of questions. I knew he had no answers. I'd heard him brush aside other students when they asked. He seemed more interested in frightening us into the church than in introducing us to God. Nothing made me dig my heels in and resist more than a bully, even a spiritual one.
"Why not be baptized?" he demanded after class one day. "You know the Truth."
I shrugged. "If the Bible is true, this church certainly follows its teachings."
"Then why?" he asked as if adherence to the Bible should be enough for anyone.
"I just don't know if the Bible is true." I explained. I left him sitting open-mouthed at his desk, unable to comprehend how anyone could have doubts about that.
I knew a coherent, well-structured system of religion by the end of my first year in church school. I just hadn't met God yet.