John Francis Sr., striking a pose in his Army uniform in 1953.
Happy Father’s Day to Bam Bam and all the other good ones ...
No one loves the man whom he fears. — Aristotle
Life must be lived forward, but can only be understood backwards. — Søren Kierkegaard
Act One, Scene One
Somewhere in a working-class neighborhod in a small steel mill town in southern Colorado, in a dustbowl wedged between the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. Here, the Rockies are a faraway promise, and inhabitants are landlocked and adrift in the near epicenter of the North American continent.
The Little Ones are swinging from 30-year-old elms encrusted with the exoskeletons of beefy green locusts when Our Father calls to say he is on his way over. He's got a gun and he's going to shoot us, and then shoot himself. Or so he says. By "shooting" I assume he means bang-bang we're dead. I'm 14 years old. What else could it possibly mean?
It’s the summer of 1972, a leap year with an extra second added, and our parents are separated. It’s the summer of the Watergate scandal, the Vietnam War and the Munich Massacre, and Mom’s put up with Our Father’s alcoholism for about as long as she can endure. She's done with the side effects, too: the brutality, sexual perversion, drug abuse, prison time and emotional and financial instability. A simple phone call ends it all. Our Father, a skilled government bomb builder and a failed Army private, wiretaps the landline, and listens as Mom laughs and flirts with a World War II veteran who later becomes our stepfather and her savior.
Two months after they separate, Our Father returns in his faded green station wagon to beg Mom to take him back. She refuses, so he saunters outside, methodically hooks up a vacuum tube to his exhaust pipe, slumps into the driver’s seat, and threatens to gas himself unless mom changes her mind. She doesn't, and he doesn't.
See, it’s all part of the classic cycle of abuse: Tension. Violence. Remorse. Tension. Violence. Remorse. The pattern stays the same, but the punishment and bribes are always a surprise.
Sometimes it’s slaps, tears and roses. Then it’s humiliation, tears and a steak dinner. If things get really out of control, its chaos, tears and a trip to the zoo, where old Siberian tigers pace in stinking cages, and capuchin monkeys pick lice out of each other’s scruffy fur.
Deep down we know it's a charade. He pretends he’s hellbent on leaving this earth and taking us with him, but we know he’s a coward. Children know these things about their parents.
We know he doesn’t have the guts to kill himself. He knows the inner workings of bombs and the pendulum clocks he meticulously restores, but can’t seem to figure out how to diffuse his own demons before they erupt in his face and ours, leaving gaping wounds and permanent scars.
Emboldened by new love, Mom decides to go it alone with five kids, facing social stigma, poverty, excommunication and hard work to rebuild her life and ours. She’s 31 years old, and has two teenagers and three babies under the age of 10.
John Francis Jr. is 13, and just a year younger than I. Because we are the oldest, Mom relies on us to help with the Little Ones: Peanut, 9, Bam Bam, 6, and Pebbles, 4. We bicker and fight like street urchins, but we’re united in our love for Mom, and do all we can to protect her from Our Father.
Without him, we’ve become self-sufficient, and revel in our newfound freedom. Mom takes us to see “Night of the Living Dead” at the drive-in on a hot summer night, and we come home and pile into her bed to sleep off visions of flesh-eating corpses.
We’ve evicted one monster, but there could be others, stranger still, undaunted and skulking around the locust shells at night, waiting to push their crumbly bones through our windows to feast on our young bodies. We have to stick together.
Legend has it that John Francis Jr. was so jealous of Peanut when she was born that he shoved peanuts up her nose while she napped peacefully on our parents’ bed. She turned blue before anyone noticed she wasn’t breathing. She survived, and her nickname stuck.
Bam Bam has spent half his childhood wrecking the house or running through our backyard in slow motion as the “Six Million Dollar Man.” We found him swinging upside-down by one leg from a tree once, patiently hanging from a rope, waiting for someone to rescue him from a failed mission. He survived and his nickname stuck.
Pebbles has a head-top curl clipped by a plastic barrette. When she turned four, we flew over the handlebars of my 10-speed bike after her tiny foot became wedged in the spokes. We skidded across the hot blacktop, and she walked away with road rash, embedded pebbles and a few stitches. We survived, and her nickname stuck.
Act One, Scene Two
The capuchin monkeys are swinging from trees. The Siberian tiger has escaped from his cage. Rotary phone, circa 1970s, rings loudly as a young girl reads on the couch.
It’s the day of our personal armageddon, and my nose is buried in a beat-up paperback edition of “Doctor Zhivago." Todd Rundgren’s keening voice is on the radio, and the swamp cooler is blowing full blast.
Mom and John Francis Jr. are out shopping and spending some alone time together. The Little Ones are swinging from the elms. The rotary jangles loudly, and I dog-ear my book, interrupting Yuri and Lara’s snow-laden Russian tragedy, and lumber toward the phone in the hallway. It’s Our Father. He still hasn’t accepted that Mom doesn’t want him around anymore.
I can feel the pattern starting. It’s all he knows. When he was a kid, his drunken father struck terror in his heart. The image of Our Father as a boy squatting amid corn rows, hiding from His Father, intrudes. I see him alone and already broken, trembling on the dusty plains east of the Rockies during the Great Depression.
“Debbie? Is your mother home?” Our Father asks, his voice a jagged trap ready to snap.
“No. She’s not here,” I say in the brittle voice of an indignant teenage girl gearing up for high drama. “Why won’t you leave us alone?”
“Why do you talk like that? ... Don’t you love your Dad?” he asks pathetically.
You’re not my Dad and never will be. For now, though, I can’t bring myself to speak those words, to be cruel. To cut him the way he cuts us.
Silence. Then Our Father breaks into sobs like a big baby.
“I need to talk to her. ... I’m coming over. ... I’ve got a gun, and I’m gonna shoot you all, and then I’m gonna shoot myself.”
Time slows down as a chill spreads from the bottom of my bare feet and up my spine before it explodes in my head.
“Leave us alone!” I scream before slamming down the receiver.
Something in his voice tells me he’s going to follow through this time, and I pick up the phone again and call the police.
The dispatcher calms me down, and asks where my mother is. Then she instructs me to bring my brothers and sisters inside, to lock all of the doors and windows, and to wait for officers to arrive. It’s not the first time the police have been here.
Tall blond officers in crisp uniforms have knocked in the past to “check on us” during his drunken rages. I’ve seen the pity, judgment and arrogance in their icy Aryan eyes. They recognize us for who we are: sad little foot soldiers enduring the horrors of an intensely personal war, where bombs and grenades go off in close quarters, in the confines of domesticity, and not on foreign battlefields. Our battle-weary faces engender repugnance and not sympathy. To them, we’re savages, subhuman hybrids weakened by generations of miscegenation.
I run to the back door and yell at Peanut, Bam Bam and Pebbles to get their asses in the house. They’re disappointed, but they sense a storm brewing, and obey me for once, scurrying into the house with bare feet slapping across linoleum and synthetic wall-to-wall carpeting. I run around locking windows and doors, wishing my mother and brother were around.
I’m Dorothy, and a funnel cloud is dipping its swirling finger from the dark skies. I'm Anya, and the Nazis are closing in on our ghetto. Our Father pulls into the driveway slowly, his tires creaking on the gravel, and I tell the Little Ones to run and hide. They slide under Mom’s bed. I’m their sole protector now, and I run from window to window to see where Our Father is. I stand rigidly in a corner as he rattles the bolted front door, then stops. I run to a window and watch as he walks around the house, carrying a crumpled brown paper bag in one hand. He’ll stop at nothing to get inside.
It doesn’t take him long to open the screen door and unlatch the chain on the backdoor. All that separates us now is a heavy wooden door between the kitchen and the mud room at the back of the house. I lock the mud-room door and stand against it as Our Father yells at me to open it while he hurls his shoulder against it. He kicks the door, and I feel the weight of his foot in the middle of my back as I press my body against the door, and push against a wall for support. He’ll have to break the door down. I’m not letting him in.
“No, Dad!” I yell tearfully, calling him by the one name he wants to hear. Maybe it’ll make him more human, and less zombie.
The sound of sirens stop him, and I run to the front door to find two squad cars parked at an angle on the residential street outside our home. Peanut, Pebbles and I make a run for it as Mom and John Francis Jr. drive up. We throw ourselves into the backseat of Mom’s car, and peek out to watch what happens next. Police officers are standing behind their boxy, oversized squad cars, their pistols drawn and pointed squarely at our front door.
Neighbors are gaping luridly from front porches and driveways, and boys from my middle school are sitting jauntily on Sting-Rays with glittery banana seats and monkey handlebars. It's a good show. At least a Movie of the Week. It's almost as good as a George Romero production—almost. Then, an officer pulls out a bullhorn, and our street turns into an episode of "The Rookies."
“John. We know you’re in there. Come out with your hands up.”
Yeah. They say it like that. Just like in the movies.
Silence. Then Our Father yells out. I can’t hear what he says, but two officers approach the front door gingerly, weapons drawn, and enter the house slowly. A few minutes later, one of them comes out and talks to Mom. The officer escorts her into the house, and she stays in there for 20 minutes. Our Father emerges, his hands in cuffs behind his back, with the two officers flanking him. They push him into the backseat of one of the squad cars, and drive away.
Holy crap. He can’t even pull off an armed standoff with police. Slowly, neighbors begin shuffling back to their houses, talking animatedly, laughing and shaking their heads. Bike Boys ride off with their tails in the air as their skinny legs pedal away reluctantly. Mom stands in front of the house and talks to officers. Peanut, John Francis Jr., Pebbles and I are in the car wondering what’s going to happen next. The officers finally leave and Mom walks over to us.
Suddenly, she stops and asks with dread, “Where’s Billy?”
On cue, 6-year-old Bam Bam bangs out of the front storm door and runs to the car. He’s wearing a pair of shorts and nothing else, and his skinny white legs are pumping furiously as he hurls himself into the back seat of the car with the rest of us.
We stare at him in stunned silence.
“I was hiding under Mom’s bed,” he says, seemingly unfazed by his courage. “I could see his feet walking back and forth. He was looking for us.”
We clap him on the back, impressed with his laid-back demeanor. For the moment, at least, we’re safe, and that is all that matters.
Mission accomplished, Bam Bam. Mission accomplished.
© Photo and essay by Deborah Méndez Wilson. All Rights Reserved. Last two images are from Google. Video from YouTube.