Letting Those Decisions Slide By

How do we let those decisions slip and slide by? How did my dad do it? Each and every decision that led him down the path he chose. We each make those decisions every day. Famous people we learn of in the news make them and we hear of them going to prison or getting away with what they do. It is so easy not to focus on some decision, to let it slide. I do it every day when I decide to eat something I know I should not. “That’s not really good for me, but if I don’t think about it too hard, I’ll end up eating and enjoying it before I can feel guilty,” and down it goes. By then it’s too late. Deciding about food is one thing. Kindness, morality, and integrity something else. Is that what Dad did? He did this or that without thinking about it too much, and it was done. Too late now. No sense in worrying about it. Water under the bridge and all that.

I don’t think he planned ahead on separating us from everyone we trusted. He just did it. One person at a time. That is what perpetrators do.

School might have been a problem. But in those days, no one had any idea what to look for. I was shy. Mary was shy. Diann had a stuttering problem that could be solved by a speech therapist. No one thought of digging deeper.

I don’t recall being afraid of school, but I did have nightmares of missing the bus home. I had a difficult time in class until the teacher told Mom I couldn’t see the blackboard.

I hated those eyeglasses. I wore them in class, but took them off right after. Until the day I walked home and unknowingly dropped them on the highway walking home. We caught the bus at Rathbun’s grocery store on South Turkeyfoot Lake Road, about a half mile down the hill from Pillar Avenue. Once home, I discovered my glasses were missing, hurried back to search my route, and found them smashed on the highway. Eyeglasses cost money. Lots of it to us in those days. Dad was going to kill me. I told Mom, who could tell how terrified I was. Diann has since told me she said prayers for me that day before Dad got home, she was so scared for me. I lay down on the couch and buried my nose in a book, which was my escape from reality. Mom must have told Dad of my terror because he said not a word. And I was so very careful of my new eyeglasses for ever after.

One of the finest things about school was meeting my best friend, Mary.

Mary loved reading as much as I did, and was even as horse crazy as me. I had to share her with her other friend, Janet, who lived next to her. At recess the three of us ran around the playground playing horses. Over the years, our playing became more sophisticated, and we developed characters based loosely on books we read, even going so far as to research history for more interesting drama. As an adult many years later I learned that both Mary and I used our stories as an escape from what happened to us at home. We emulated different characters, acted out scenarios, and took control where we had no control over our real lives. Mary was always a strong-minded female; I became the adventurous male romantic interest. Janet, a tomboy in those days, generally played my rival in our stories, and often she and Mary continued on when I was absent, as they lived next to one another, and my house was miles distant. As young as I was, I felt left out, lonely, and somewhat jealous of their time together.

Growing up, I generally felt cut off from other kids. Years later I learned how Dad separated us from everyone but his own immediate family, and how typical this action is of someone like him.

In January of 1952, Mom’s mother died.

I was in first grade and me and Diann were left at Dot and Vic’s while the adults went to the funeral. Dot and Vic’s—Sally and Nancy’s—for several years this was a convenient place to remove me and Diann from the “goings-on.” We weren’t much aware that we had only one grandma left, Dad’s Mom, Grandma Plotner.

Only recently I learned that Grandma Plotner gave me and Diann a little beagle puppy named Dusty. I believed she was Dad’s because he took her over to breed her for purebred beagles. He kept her in a small pen in the backyard. When he walked up there with a rifle under his arm she ran around in circles so fast her tail practically wagged her. They would disappear together across the field and into the woods behind our house. You could always tell when she scared up a rabbit and where they were by the sound of her bugling cry. Mom slow-cooked the caught rabbits with spiced flour in a pan for supper. For years a vase full of pheasant feathers sat on the shelf over the unused fireplace. Dad and Grandpa Jack (he had two beagles) shot pheasant outside of Strasburg where Grandma Plotner lived.

Dusty would have nothing to do with the purebreds with which Dad attempted to mate her. She chose her own mate, dug her way out of her pen, and at least twice dropped a litter of unwanted puppies. The second time Diann and I were old enough to get attached to the four of them. Dad helped with the birth, and I found the pups curled up with Dusty in the doorway between the house and garage before their eyes were open. They were all spotted brown and white, and the biggest male was a fat little guy. Before long we had played with them, named them, and discovered their different personalities.

Diann and I were driven to Sally and Nancy’s for a weekend. I recall perfectly the ride home in the back of the car when Dad announced the puppies had “gone to heaven.” Diann and I were silent. What could we say? I expect we both felt the same. I stared out the side window. Felt the return of that black balloon in my chest and stomach. It would grow and grow and want to burst, but it couldn’t. I hated those lies. He had killed the first litter and now he had killed this one, all four of them. 

Maybe it was the Baker kids who had told me about the first litter. “He drowned them in a bucket.” I don’t know if that was true. They would say anything to make me feel bad. But I did know how he took care of a rabbit I “rescued.”

I once chased our neighbor’s cat that had caught a baby rabbit that was still alive. Over the roof of our house we went, across the wall, over the roof of the neighbor’s house, across their back yard, the back wall, back onto our side and through the bushes. Though it wasn’t easy, I was determined to save that little white-tailed bunny. That cat finally got tired of carrying the weight, and I picked it up, still alive, but likely frightened half to death. I took it inside, at my age believing I could save it. Dad let me hold onto my hopes for a couple hours until the bunny went catatonic, I think, or whatever bunnies do. Then he took it into the garage. I sneaked after him to see what he would do. He put the bunny’s head into a vice and hammered a nail into its head. A quick, humane death, I suppose. Or did he shoot them?

Fortunately, I had lots of stuffed animals upstairs in my bunk to tell my troubles to, since it was dark by then.

Dad once took Diann and me into the garage to shoot his black pistol. The plan was to teach us to be afraid of guns. The shot in the garage was plenty loud enough to scare us, to say nothing of the kickback in the hand of a little girl.

I grew up with what I consider a healthy fear of guns.

Though I turned out to be a good shot with a rifle, I don’t like them. I don’t care to be around guns, and I am wary around people who carry them. I believe gun laws in this country are much, much too lenient.

Did Dad shoot the puppies or use the nail? He liked Dusty, I think, though he didn’t take care of her properly, not enough to have her spayed. Maybe he still hoped for those purebreds. I don’t believe he was entirely without feelings. What did it do to him to “take care” of each of those puppies?

I had always wanted a dog of my own.

When Mom went to work, they decided we needed a dog to protect Diann and me when we were home alone. I named the black and white puppy Maverick after a calf that had lost its mother. He was originally for both my sister and I, until Diann got tired of feeding and cleaning up his messes, then he became mine alone. I read one of Dad’s dog books from cover to cover and trained poor Maverick in everything, from sitting to staying to sneaking around under blanket-covered furniture, including silent hand calls. I never hit him, as I believed in positive reinforcement—plenty of love and treats. 

Maverick

Maverick became another place I’d go with my troubles. His fur got dampened more than once with frustrated tears. Good ol’ buddy.

Now we had Maverick for protection while Mom worked, but none of her friends lived nearby. Aunt Amy had ceased visiting us, even during storms. Dad made her uncomfortable. When I was older Mom said that Amy began walking to a local bar for company, (she didn’t drive) where she met a man she invited to live with her. 

Mom’s sister, Dot, and her husband were the only ones of her family left, now that Grandma Flavel was gone. Dad would close that possible loophole next.

Nature is my Refuge

I expected that writing this memoir would be difficult at times, that it might bring up memories long buried. What has surprised me is that I no longer think of the past, of Portage Lakes, as quite the nightmare I have for so many years. This, in itself, is a relief. As I have been told, the more I speak of it, the more I bring these “things” to the surface, the less of a horror they seem. This is true even more so as I write them down here. I am not hiding behind a fiction-based character as I did the first time around in a novel, either. That was wishful thinking, something my sister, my best friend, and I constantly did as we were growing up—a survival tactic. This tactic was necessary then, but is not necessary now, and is no longer useful in the real world we live in.

I needed someone to play with.

Don’t all kids? Mom, Mommy, as she was to us then, taught me this song:

Playmate, come out and play with me

And bring your dollies three

Climb up my apple tree

Shout down my rain barrel

Slide down my cellar door

And we’ll by jolly friends for ever more.

Many of our best times were exchanging places with our cousins, Sally and Nancy.

Sally was a couple years younger than me, Nancy a little younger than Diann, and I’d spend a weekend at Sally’s house while Nancy came to ours, or vice versa. Their mom, Dorothy, known as Dot, was Mom’s youngest sister. I felt safe at Dot and Vic’s house, and Sally and Nancy had an upstairs bedroom all their own. Heaven. They had a dog and a cat, too, and friends around our age to play with. Sally had a two-wheel bike, and I learned to ride one at her house. I was scared the first time, but wanted to ride one desperately, so I just got on and went down the sidewalk, my knees and elbows quaking like crazy. I didn’t fall!

Grandma Flavel, Diann, Nancy, Sally, and me at our front door, Pillar Avenue.

I begged and begged to have my own bike after that and finally Dad got me an old second-hand iron thing that weighed a ton, but I loved it. It was so heavy it was Speedy Gonzales on the downhill and I developed strong thighs pumping it on the up. Only one gear in those days. I still have a couple tiny black remains in my knee from crashing in the cinder driveway next door. 

Years later after work and fresh paint that old bike got me to my college classes.

The family that moved into the corner house next to us on the hill were a pretty rough bunch.

A good many folks moved up to our part of Ohio, from West Virginia and Kentucky to work in the rubber factories and find other jobs in the area. Dad’s stepfather, Jack Plotner, was one of these transplants. The Baker family’s father drove a big wheeler like Dad and was often absent. The second oldest daughter, Jackie, was a little older than me and much heftier. I was a little afraid of her. Mom said she caught her and her older sister and brother bossing me and Diann around more than once and soon taught us about “indian burns.” This consisted of grabbing your arm in two hands and tightly twisting in opposite directions. 

For some time Jackie was all I had. I went to her when I was desperate for companionship. She gave me a number of unpleasant memories, and it didn’t take me long to be more content with my own company.  

Diann, me, Nancy, and Sally moving out of the picture. I think this must have been Sally’s birthday.

Diann was more fortunate in having a friend in Barbara, the youngest daughter. Although I will never forget the day they were playing around with fishing line and Diann came screaming from their yard dragging a fishing pole across the field behind her by a fish hook stuck in her knee. To this day I cringe with the thought of it.

I believe the Perry family, who lived across Pillar and around the corner from us, were another family of transplants from the hill country.

Kenny, the youngest, was probably the toughest, and always in trouble. We didn’t see much of the oldest boy, since he was much older than us, but Billy, about Diann’s age, would walk around the neighborhood in his Mom’s cast-off dresses and heels. Billy was the sweetest boy of the entire clan, and you can imagine how he was treated. He hung out with me and Diann the most since we accepted him.

Every so often neighborhood kids would converge, boys and girls of various ages, play softball, cowboys, have secret meetings, get up to the sorts of things parents will never know.

I never felt close to anyone. In fact, there were several instances where I had to stand up for my shy little sister. And for Billy. That was the sort of neighborhood in which we lived.

Diann and I had vivid imaginations, and cut comic books for story characters, made barns and houses of upside-down cardboard boxes, and cut stick horses out of branches. 

 I made a fantastic stick horse out of my favorite sassafras bush. I spent hours trimming the bark smooth. That branch was nice and straight, just the right length and width, firm but with a bit of spring to it. I tied clothesline on for reins, and named him Flame for a horse in a favorite Walter Farley novel. I knew every inch of that horse and rode it everywhere. Diann had one, too, so did several other kids, but mine was the best. In my opinion. Over days and weeks the oils from my stroking hands made Flame even smoother. Our mistake was believing a spot near the front door was a safe hitching post.

One evening Dad came home from work in a bad mood and threw our horses out. 

Diann and me. A neighbor’s pets

Nature has been my place of refuge as far back as I can remember.

My biggest fears and problems fade once I am outside, my feet on the ground, my head under the sky. I would lie down and watch clouds form and float by. I would smell and hear the wind in the leaves. I would climb my tree and cry like crazy and feel better afterward.

Nature is so big, so grand, so all-encompassing, that Dad seemed puny compared to it. As did my problems. 

And I finally found my forever playmate in the first grade.