I woke up in the dark to the whispery sounds of my dog Blackie scooting stealthily on his belly, his toenails making faint clicking sounds as he inched across a wood floor towards the bedroom window.
My eyes darted towards a flickering movement of something outside the window. Backlit by the moon, it was casting a malignant shadow into the room.
Wait . . . what was that scraping sound?
The window was being eased up . . . and then I saw it. A dark shape was crouching with one hand lifting the window up – and now slipping one foot over the sill.
I remember the shape of the boot; a man’s boot . . . and I remember what happened next as Blackie lunged upward from the floor and latched onto his boot. The guy managed to slam the window down and escape . . . minus a bloody sock and a boot.
That was my dog; my Lassie in life. Not a sound from the dog – just fierce determination. He was not a yapper; he gave no warning. He just attacked. My kind of dog.
I was six years old, sleeping in my parents’ bed. Home alone. No doubt the robber – if that’s what he was – thought the room was empty. Maybe even knew my parents weren’t home. In the dark room I probably looked like just another pillow on the bed.
I fell back to sleep with no worries. Lassie had handled the threat. And even at age six, I had developed an instinct for when danger had passed.
It wasn’t the first threat of violence I had witnessed; just the first threat from a stranger. I had already learned that family posed far more danger to me than strangers.
I would experience another home invasion as an adult; but then the motive was clear . . . and unfortunately Blackie was long dead.
Most of the violence I witnessed in life was domestic; and it started back on our ranch in Casper Wyoming when I was about five.
Like many of us, our stories start with the disappointments of our parents. It’s on their shoulders, their broken dreams, that we stand.
I’d say we were an upper middle-class family in the oil business. My father, Glenn English, owned and operated Hughes Tool Supply Company flying equipment out to the oil fields. My mom, Edith, ran the office.
Glenn was a tough man well respected in the oil fields; known amongst the wildcatters as a man’s man.
To me and my sisters, he was a cocky little Irishman – mean spirited . . . and worse.
He was an athlete – invited to participate in the Olympics as a college wrestler at Colorado Teacher’s College in Greeley Colorado.
The story is he couldn’t accept the invitation because in those days you had to pay your own way, and my mom was already in a family way. At the time, they were a couple of poor college students. No money. Maybe that’s what started his animosity towards my mother. Regrets have a way of gnawing away at a relationship.
Our family life revolved around his work in the oil fields, and when he was home around teaching wrestling to local high school and college kids. Everything was about sweat, hard fists, and competition.
The oil business was booming in those days, the 1940’s, at least if you judge by the parties our parents went to and the baby grand piano in our living room in our town house in Casper. My mom loved the good life. My dad liked to gamble, and they both liked to drink.
How I loved that piano. It’s sound took me away. I mean, anyone sounds good on a baby grand. I’d get up around 6am, mom would fix me oatmeal, and I would practice classical music. I lost myself in that music. It eased all pain. Where would we be without music?
My sister, Joan was already a pretty good pianist. And my sister Cindy and I tap-danced to entertain mom and dad’s guests. That’s what kids were for; entertainment.
But once the guests were gone, the fighting would start. It was normal for us kids to go to sleep at night with a pillow over our heads to drown out the fights.
Our father was both an alcoholic and violently abusive.
I remember the sounds of one night, creeping down the hall and peeked around the arched doorway leading into the living room . . . and right next to the grand piano my mom was kneeling, her back to my dad, and he had a bull whip in his hands slicing it through the air.
He was good with a whip; spot on, you might say . . . and he was drunk.
I learned not to look.
And, I learned how to hide. I was always on guard. A first sighting of my father coming home was enough to send me scattering to make myself scarce if not unseen. Hiding under the house, a dank old place, cobwebs and all, became my sanctuary.
I didn’t imagine monsters lurking in the shadows and darkness. The monster was upstairs, and he was real. I was fine there in the dirt where adults wouldn’t look for me. I had my dog . . . well, my brother’s dog to keep me company. Blackie. He’d hide, too. Following the dog, that’s probably how I found the hidey-hole.
In the dark, once the house was quiet, I would sneak back up to my bedroom.
One of my most haunting memories was the night my dad came stumbling into the bedroom drunk.
It was the sound of someone approaching, bouncing off the hallway walls that really frightened me. I went rigid in fear. Is that you Daddy?
He caught his balance on the doorjamb and flipped on the light switch as he came into view, seeing me there in my parent’s bed. All Alone.
As my eyes fought to adjust, I saw something wiggling in his grasp. Something tiny, dark and wet; a newborn puppy he pulled out of the pocket of his overcoat.
Maybe he had won it gambling; I don’t know. Like a picture burned into my memory, I remember he was dressed up, wearing a dark blue suit and white starched shirt opened at the neck . . . like he’d just come home from an event or maybe a party.
I don’t’ know why, but he pulled the squirming puppy out, and towering over me . . . he grabbed ahold of the puppy’s head and tore it apart by the ears.
I closed my eyes by instinct, a thunderous pounding in my ears blocking out the sound of the puppy’s screams. I don’t remember anything after that. It was like the world went dark.
After that, I would try to leave the house as soon as I heard my father’s voice. Blackie kept me company. It was enough. And no one ever missed me.
I learned that it can be good to be invisible.
You know when I tell these stories, it seems like a dark life for kids, but there were instances of light, of grace. I remember being drawn to churches. It was the singing.
Children believe whole-heartedly in what they feel.
The singing in churches spoke to my soul. I wandered into at least three churches in Casper and was baptized, a Presbyterian, a Baptist, a whatever . . . I just needed to feel close to God, and in those days, nobody even asked about where my parents were.
In my childish fantasies, I was either a nun or Wonder Woman. Either super heroine could totally take up residence in my body.
What I saw at home was that you win by being the toughest, the meanest if not the biggest fighter. So, the nun fantasy got nudged out by Wonder Woman. I needed the Wonder Woman warrior fantasy to stiffen my backbone.
In short; I trained myself to be tough. My helpless years as a child taught me . . . not patience – but endurance.
I practiced my new role by jumping out of trees onto people, by wrestling other kids to the ground and throwing them over my head to earn my place in the pecking order of my world; the schoolyard. I guess you’d call that being a tomboy, or maybe a bully.
As kids, you’re neither male nor female, at least I didn’t relate that way. I saw myself as a person, not a sex. I wore a dress but used the wresting moves I saw my father teach to stake out my space with peers.
And like all kids, I had no concept of “over-kill”. I remember a punk kid shoving a snowball into my sister’s ear. She ran, and when he bent down to make another ball, I picked up a piece of cement block and dropped it on his head.
Another time I lured a boy too big to fight to the edge of my father’s wresting pit. I pushed him in, threw a container of ice cream over him, and then told my big sister “Joan Wayne” that he’d broken in and stolen the ice cream. She beat him up. That’s what makes kids so dangerous.
I learned you become the leader by winning the fight one way or the other.