Note: I ran across this amazing and powerfully written story of father strength, conviction, and the ability to see past blind rage to do the right thing, and I knew I had to share it here…
by Mel Lazarus
“Daddy’s going to be very angry about this,” my mother said. It was August 1938 at a Catskill Mountains boarding house. One hot Friday afternoon, three of us—nine-year-old city boys—got to feeling listless. We’d done all the summer-country stuff, caught all the frogs, picked the blueberries and shivered in enough icy river water. What we needed on this unbearably boring afternoon was some action.
To consider the options, Artie, Eli and I holed up in the cool of the “casino,” the little building in which the guests enjoyed their nightly bingo games and the occasional traveling magic act.
Gradually, inspiration came: the casino was too new, the wood frame and white sheetrock walls too perfect. We would do it some quiet damage. Leave our anonymous mark on the place, for all time. With, of course, no thought as to consequences.
We began by picking up a long, wooden bench, running with it like a battering ram, and bashing it into a wall. It left a wonderful hole. But small. So we did it again. And again…
Afterward the three of us, breathing hard, sweating the sweat of heroes, surveyed our first really big-time damage. The process had been so satisfying we’d gotten carried away. There was hardly a good square of sheetrock left. a good square of sheetrock left.
Suddenly, before even a tweak of remorse set in, the owner, Mr. Biolos, appeared in the doorway of the building. Furious. And craving justice: When they arrived from the city that night, he-would-tell-our-fathers! Meantime, he told our mothers. My mother felt that what I had done was so monstrous she would leave my punishment to my father. “And’ she said, “Daddy’s going to be very angry about this.”
By six o’clock Mr. Biolos was stationed out at the driveway, grimly waiting for the fathers to start showing up. Behind him, the front porch was jammed, like a sold-out bleacher section, with indignant guests. They’d seen the damage to their bingo palace, knew they’d have to endure it in that condition for the rest of the summer. They too craved justice.
As to Artie, Eli and me, we each found an inconspicuous spot on the porch a careful distance from the other two but not too far from our respective mothers. And we waited.
Artie’s father arrived first. When Mr. Biolos told him the news and showed him the blighted casino, he carefully took off his belt and—with practiced style—viciously whipped his screaming son. With the approbation, by the way, of an ugly crowd of once gentle people.
Eli’s father showed up next. He was told and shown and went raving mad, knocking his son off his feet with a slam to the head. As Eli lay crying on the grass, he kicked him on the legs, buttocks and back. When Eli tried to get up he kicked him again. The crowd muttered: Listen, they should have thought of this before they did the damage. They’ll live, don’t worry; and I bet they never do that again.
I wondered: What will my father do? He’d never laid a hand on me in my life. I knew about other kids, had seen bruises on certain schoolmates and even heard screams in the evenings from certain houses on my street, but there were those kids, their families, and the why and how of their bruises were, to me, dark abstractions. Until now.
I looked over at my mother. She was upset. Earlier she’d made it clear to me that I had done some special kind of crime. Did it mean that beatings were now, suddenly, the new order of the day?
My own father suddenly pulled up in our Chevy, just in time to see Eli’s father dragging Eli up the porch steps and into the building. He got out of the car believing, I was sure, that whatever it was all about, Eli must have deserved it. I went dizzy with fear. Mr. Biolos, on a roll, started talking. My father listened, his shirt soaked with perspiration, a damp handkerchief draped around his neck; he never did well in humid weather. I watched him follow Mr. Biolos into the casino. My dad—strong and principled, hot and bothered— what was he thinking about all this?
When they emerged, my father looked over at my mother. He mouthed a small “Hello,” then his eyes found me and stared for a long moment, without expression. I tried to read his eyes, but they left me and went to the crowd, from face to expectant face. Then, amazingly, he got into his car and drove away!
Nobody not even my mother could imagine where he was going. An hour later he came back. Tied onto the top of his car was a stack of huge sheetrock boards. He got out holding a paper sack with a hammer sticking out of it. Without a word he untied the sheetrock and one by one carried the boards into the casino. And didn’t come out again that night.
All through my mother’s and my silent dinner and for the rest of that Friday evening and long after we had gone to bed, I could hear—everyone could hear—the steady bang bang bang bang of my dad’s hammer. I pictured him sweating, missing his dinner, missing my mother, getting madder and madder at me. Would tomorrow be the last day of my life?
It was 3 A.M. before I finally fell asleep. The next morning, my father didn’t say a single word about the night before. Nor did he show any trace of anger or reproach of any kind. We had a regular day, he, my mother, and I, and, in fact, our usual sweet family weekend. Was he mad at me? You bet he was. But in a time when many of his generation saw corporal punishment of their children as a God-given right, he knew “spanking” as beating, and beating as criminal. And that when kids were beaten, they always remembered the pain but often forgot the reason.
I also realized years later that, to him, humiliating me was just as unthinkable. Unlike the fathers of my buddies, he couldn’t play into a conspiracy of revenge and spectacle. But my father had made his point. I never forgot that my vandalism on that August afternoon was outrageous. And I’ll never forget that it was also the day I first understood how deeply I could trust him.
Mel Lazarus is a novelist and the creator of the comic strips Momma and Miss Peach. This article originally appeared in the Sunday New York Times, About Men, May 28, 1995 and was reprinted in Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting by Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn.