The midday sun scorched the humid August air. Twelve-year-old John’s sweat dripped down on the railroad tie at which he’d been flailing away with a man-sized ax. His slender arms and shoulders ached from the hours of chopping the stack of ties his stepfather had hauled home the night before. Not nearly half finished with the task, John allowed himself only a brief respite, then continued hacking away, his stepfather’s parting words that morning etched in his mind. . .
"You have those ties out back busted up for firewood by the time I git home tonight, or I'll beat the hell outta you.” John knew that it was no hollow threat.
His twice-widowed mother, Leona, had met this brute of a man at Murray’s Five and Dime, where she’d been working to support John and his three younger half-sisters. The Depression had been particularly cruel on Leona and the children, and the man provided some security that previously they had not experienced.
From the onset of the union, the stepfather was amiable, at times almost loving, toward his sisters, but he held some sort of resentment toward John. John had assumed a great deal of responsibility in the family, but any efforts on his part to continue with his role as eldest sibling were met harshly and violently. He’d worn many a bruise or scar from earlier encounters with this man. . .He continued chopping.
Another hour passed. John’s muscles burned with fatigue. The bright redness of his sunburnt neck stung sharply from sweat pouring down his head. His mother watched through the dusty kitchen window, feeling helpless, praying that God would somehow remedy this entrapment in which her son was bound. She dutifully carried John out a cheese sandwich and glass of cool water, for which he stopped only briefly. Their eyes met with mutual despair. The silence of the moment was punctuated by the backfire of Murray’s delivery truck motoring up the road to their house.
Mr. Murray owned another store, in Centerville, about 70 miles to the north, where John’s real father had been raised. His dad had died when John was two years old, from post-surgical complications. John had three uncles and two aunts living in Centerville. They were a loving, closed-knit clan. . .the delivery truck motored to a stop in front of their house.
Leona often had a letter or a package to send up to John’s uncles or aunts with whom she’d tried to stay in contact. Kind, thoughtful Mr. Murray always had his delivery driver stop at her house to see if he could take anything to Centerville for her. . .
“Hey, Miss Leona, got anything going north this afternoon?” the driver hollered, seeing her walking back toward the house.
“No, not today, Herb,” Leona called back weakly, her mind occupied by the cruelty of the situation behind her. But suddenly she stopped, her head turning quickly back toward the sound of the ax.
“Wait Herb, I do have something you can take. Can you give me five minutes?”
Running inside, Leona grabbed a tattered grip from the hall closet. She frantically threw in as many clothes and personal items as the old bag would hold. Tears of sorrow and relief streaming down her face, she composed herself as best she could, scribbling out a pleading note of explanation. Her hands trembled as she folded the paper over and tucked it into the top of the grip.
John looked up at his mother walking toward him, carrying the bag. Her tear-stained face was all the explanation he needed. Embracing in silence, save for the sobs of his mother, John looked over her shoulder and saw Herb awkwardly toeing at the ground.
“This is your chance. God has answered my prayer. I love you, son. Now, go.”
Defiantly, John buried the ax into the railroad tie he’d been laboring over. He kissed his mother on the cheek one last time and walked away from his dreadful life. . .
It was the first he’d ever spoken of it. The cancer that ravaged my 82-year-old father’s body had nearly taken its toll. Sitting alone in his hospital room, listening to him unpack the pain of his abusive childhood, I burned with hatred toward the cruelty inflicted upon him 70 years prior. His final words on the subject have stayed with me. . .
"I’ll never understand what I did to make that man hate me so.”
No doubt, the thoughts of many an abused child. . .
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