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.

Kids Need Truth to Balance Imagination

Mom loved reading, so love of books came naturally to me and Diann. If nothing else was available, I read the backs of cereal boxes at breakfast. We had a collection of Little Golden Books, and many came from Grandma Flavel and Aunt Amy, who was happily married and with a son and daughter of her own. We didn’t have kindergarten, but I read before entering first grade. Mom said she would be working at the kitchen sink and see me going by outside the window with my face in a book—walking around the house. 

Reading saved me; the worlds found in books were my escape when the real world turned too difficult and frightening. Or merely for adventure. In those days (1940s and 50s) only boys had adventures and I wanted desperately to be a boy so I could have them, too. 

I don’t recall Aunt Amy’s oldest boy, Bob, but I received plenty hand-me-downs from her daughter, Norma. I barely recall her husband, “Unca Charlie,” who I was told I loved, as he died when I was little. He and Dad went fishing a lot at “the lakes” as many called Portage Lakes where we lived. “You going fishing at the lakes this weekend?” All summer long you could hear the sound of motorboats speeding up and down Turkeyfoot Lake—about two miles to the end of Pillar Avenue, across the highway, and down the hill from our house.

Aunt Amy was a trip.

After Charlie died and her kids grew up and moved away we saw quite a lot of her. She had a house at the bottom of a steep road and practically on the lake. I used to have nightmares about getting stuck in a car that ran away on that downhill road. As I got older, maybe nine or so, I would walk to the end of Pillar Avenue and meet her because she was afraid of a beagle dog that would run out beyond its yard and bark. I eventually learned the name of that dog, and commanding him with it would stop him in his tracks. He was more bark than bite, thank goodness.

Amy loved to laugh. We had a Little Golden Record about the secret laughing place she loved to play for its funny laugh. She made funny sounds with her lips in her arm, making me and Diann crack up.

She visited us every time a storm was expected. Mom said this was because when she was a small child she had been outside when Grandma was doing the wash during a storm. Thunder and lightning struck just when Amy was splashed with a pot of boiling water. Consequently, Mom always made sure Diann and I had a great time during storms. We both grew up loving a fierce rainstorm. We had some humdinger storms in Ohio. Great, black and blue thunderclouds with driving rains. Fantastic.

Mom was always working at something.

I recall Mom bending over the wood and metal scrubbing board in the furnace room that ran between the kitchen and the garage—rubbing up and down, up and down, scrubbing that laundry clean. Next I followed her outside while she hung the clothes in the backyard on a cotton line with wooden clothespins, one pin  to corners of two overlapped edges of clothing. She said there was nothing like the smell of clothing fresh dried in the wind and sun. I remember holding clothing up to my face and that smell. When I was old enough, she taught me the correct way to hang clothes so as not to get wrinkles in the wrong places and use the least number of pins. 

This was before she received a washer, and years later, a dryer.

Mom was a wonderful cook. She made our birthday cakes, and what cakes they were: one chocolate layer, one strawberry, and one vanilla. In between each layer she lathered fudge frosting, and on the sides and top swirled high melt-in-your mouth crispy-on-the-outside seven-minute white frosting. I have never eaten a cake like that since.

Karen and Diann with birthday cake in front of Pillar Avenue house

Like many children, I became attached to animals of every kind.

We had a succession of cats, mainly to keep down the mice. Our house was on a hill—our backyard stretched up to my favorite climbing tree, beyond a wire fence to a wide and deep field that eventually led to what we kids called Meyers Woods. This field was a great spawning ground for mice, rats, and other similar critters. 

I don’t remember black Mike the First, though Diann said he would jump out from behind furniture and walls and knock her down, making her laugh. Black Mike the Second would sit on the wood highchair in the kitchen, shake paws and beg for popcorn. After Mike the First passed on we got Tiger, a huge ginger male with wide furry cheeks that followed us kids everywhere. He took no guff from dogs, either. Even the big dogs learned to give him space. Mom said she recalled seeing us kids walking in a line down the street trailed by a couple dogs with Tiger bringing up the rear. We lost him to a poisoned rat and buried the fellow with ceremony in our pet cemetery in the field out back with the other critters we found dead around the neighborhood, including birds. I wish I still had a photo of Tiger, but it was lost with other photos in a flooded basement when I was in college. Tiger was a difficult one to lose.

I got my first puppy, Tinker, when I was a tot. But Tinker turned out to be a big lug when he grew up. So big he knocked me over so Dad got rid of him. I hate to think how, considering the way Dad got rid of most animals. An early project of Dad’s was raising rabbits in hutches in the backyard. I don’t know if the group of rabbits came first or my white rabbit, Peter, came first at Easter. Naturally, I became attached to Peter, the pink-eyed, white rabbit. Perhaps it’s in my imagination that he followed me around. I do recall that Diann and I went to visit our cousins, Sally and Nancy, and when we returned, Peter was gone. All the rabbits were gone. I believe that Mom convinced Dad that having animals for sale around little girls like us was not a good idea since Diann and I could get attached to them. I doubt the rabbits were a good investment anyway.

I was told Peter went to live with our neighbors, but I knew the truth. I knew Dad had got rid of that rabbit with the others. That Peter was likely dead. I think I must have been four or five. What I am saying is don’t tell this kind of story to your kids. Tell them the truth because they instinctively know the truth. I was all that much angrier because I was being told a story instead of the truth.

As adults we tend to forget how attached children get to animals and things. We forget what a different world they live in, how very special and boundless that world is. Everything is of paramount importance. If you love, it is with all your being. Imagination and the mind is as strong as reality. Imagination helps you deal with the world. I recall a painting a young girl did of giant toes on a piece of white paper. “This is me walking in wet grass.”

Kids need the truth to balance their imaginations.

They need to be able to depend on adults for that balance, so their world doesn’t topple over. I’m not saying you can’t play and imagine with your kids. But they need to know where the boundaries of imagination and truth are. Parents must provide a safe, dependable island from where children can go out and explore their world and return.

Dad was big and strong. He would grab your arm and yank to give you a swat and raise a bruise for days. He not only yelled at us or swatted our behinds for the smallest infraction, he began cutting down Mom in various ways, making remarks about what she did or things she said.

My world and my sister’s world became one of constant anxiety. Except when he was out of the house . . . gone.