Part of the diversity of life is that three people can live through the same event and because of it be touched by the event in three varied ways. One of the horror stories of my youth was also one of the saddest and most empowering.
My brother had brought a ‘friend’ home who had, in a dispute, hit him. My father happened to be watching from the window and was appalled at how the friend was bullying my brother. He opened the sliding doors to the back of the house and demanded my brother hit him back. The friend was terrified at the demeanor of my father and said he was sorry and offered to leave. My father barked at the friend to stay right there and not leave. He commanded my brother to hit him. My brother refused to hit him. Later years he would claim a pacifist streak led him not to hit the boy back but at some point it became about resisting my father. My father yelled at the other boy to hit him until he hit him back. The boy uncomfortably struck my brother a couple of times and my brother refused to retaliate. I had been watching from the back of the room and saw this was out of hand. I walked up to my father and told him let the friend go home. He glared at me. He was not himself. He was not there. There was a strong urgency to his voice. At the time I did not know what it was. Reflections in later life and listening to him talk about his life as a soldier and especially as a Marine Drill Sergeant, have made me know he was having some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder episode. He had once said, in another calmer place, a normal person had to be trained to kill. Killing was not a natural instinct. So his job was to train people to kill naturally. It was his responsibility to make sure his recruit would not hesitate to kill in battle. It was the soldier who hesitated that went home in a body bag. He also told of horror stories of young good men who froze during the middle of battle. How he had to command them to move to shoot to fight or they would die. He was not always successful. He looked me in the eye and said no human being should have that put upon them. To tell someone they must kill, even desire to kill, so that they may live.
I am convinced he was in battle that day and his son was refusing to fight. It became a matter of life and death for him to make his son fight back. I pled with my brother to hit him once to get it over with. He would see this as my great betrayal—siding with my father in an insane situation. But I did not know what to do but I knew if he would swing once I could will this to a conclusion. I was also scared. I could tell if he did not swing, the place my father was in would not bring this to a good conclusion.
I do not know how long this went on; it seemed like hours. My father commanding the friend to hit my brother again and my brother refusing. He would not give in to this crazy mean son of a bitch. My mom came in and yelled for my father to stop this nonsense. She told the friend to go home right now. The boy more than willingly ran home.
My father was still crazed; he walked out to where my brother was still on his knees and snatched him off the ground and carried him in the air. I had never seen him move that fast or violently before. My mother said for my father to stop it. He brushed by her. I had never seen him ignore my mother like that. He took my brother into a room and threw him on the bed. My mother was yelling for him to stop. He shut the door on her. I could tell he was hitting my brother now. He was demanding my brother hit him. Fight back he kept saying. I do not know what came over me but I entered the room. My father was in full pitch battle. I was scared. I yelled at him to stop. He did not.
I do not know what happened next. But somehow I had pulled him off my brother and he was lying on his back on the bed. I was holding his arms with my hands telling him to stop. I suddenly saw his eyes return. You could see he was trying to understand what was going on. And then you saw the truth come to him. I saw a look of horror and shame come into those eyes. He had never done anything like this before. He was a rough mean son of a bitch but it was always controlled meanness.
I let go of his arms he got up and looked at my devastated brother. He left the room. My mother came in to check on us and said she was sorry. When she saw there was no major physical damage, she left and went to my father. I am not sure but that night I think I heard him crying in their room and my mother telling him he had to get help.
My brother was angry at me. He carried that anger in the back of his head for many years. He never looked at my father the same way again. He loved him but he was angry and hurt. No one deserved to be treated like that.
I remembered my father after he had been wounded in Vietnam had convalesced in Guam. Although his recovery from his wounds was to take only a month at the most, he stayed for two and half months. He explained to me once at Guam he had met so many young men who were not ready to be in normal society. He had stayed to help them adjust. This was probably partly true. But one wonders if one of the men who did not need to return to society yet was him.
This experience was remembered as a nightmare and a great injustice by my brother. My father held its shame in his heart even many years later. Yet for me it had been cathartic. I had met my father’s rage and had literally been able to control it. I no longer feared him or was bothered by the tough Marine Drill Sergeant’s training he had raised me with.
The incident shaped the three of us in totally different ways. And though we each lived it, we each carry its burden with us in ways that none of us would recognize these many years later.