By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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Maybe Dad was looking out the kitchen window, drinking a cup of coffee, or smoking. He must have seen something because he went outside. I’m sure that my mother, my younger brother Steve, and I were in the kitchen; it was breakfast. I think I remember getting to the window in time to see Dad hurriedly close the doghouse door and signal. Anyway I do remember all four of us standing in front of the doghouse.
It was morning and gray but not cold enough for coats. Brown winter grass filled our yard except near the basketball goal where a big circle of permanent dirt had been trampled by a gang of boys — Steve and me and our eight best friends, all of whom lived on our oxbow street. Scamp’s doghouse sat at the back of the yard, just in front of the new little hedge that blocked the creek from view. Behind the creek the woods rose up much higher than the top of the basketball goal, like a deep-green, leafy hill.
“A rabbit’s in the doghouse,” said Dad. He whistled for Scamp, who came with his customary speed, with an eagerness all of us liked, with a good-hearted purity of simple friendliness that sometimes seems conscious in certain dogs. Dad knelt to open the door, ushered Scamp inside, and shut it. All of us were silent, expectant.
No sound, no stirring or jostling. Nothing.
After a minute or so, Dad leaned over and opened the door.
Scamp just sat there, quietly gazing out. Beside him hunkered a medium-sized rabbit in its mottled brown and white winter coat, gazing out too. It wasn’t trembling. Both animals stared at us. The rabbit’s eyes were dark shiny marbles. Scamp’s eyes were light chestnut, human, grandmotherly.
Neither animal seemed at all excited by the forced proximity, as if they were old pals quietly hanging out together. So we had to laugh.
We kept on laughing as the rabbit stirred itself and hopped out nonchalantly, bumping along slowly past us and through the hedge to the shadowy woods, while Scamp continued to sit there, not even shifting his position. He wore a look of befuddlement, as if he knew we had expectations but could not figure out what they were, and so thought it best to be still — “good dog” — until he could understand what was going on and respond appropriately.
A great dog. And that moment was great in its small way, the odd gentleness of it. Peaceable Kingdom. Central Kentucky, the Bluegrass, in the fifties.
Only recently have I wondered why my father would have done that in the first place — set up an encounter that could have hurt or killed the rabbit, and even put Scamp at risk of injury or rabies. Maybe he wasn’t thinking, it was an impulse, or maybe he meant it to be fun for us, or maybe he was simply curious, like a kid. I do know that during all of his life, growing up on small leased farms in Dust Bowl Oklahoma, he hated the times when animals had to be slaughtered.
I grew up believing that I was a coward. In my adolescence I could think of nothing in my childhood or boyhood to convince me that I wasn’t, and it was a long time before I changed my mind, although cowardice wasn’t something I thought about much, except when circumstances forced me to, whenever I felt I should have fought but didn’t.
Once, in downtown Lexington, I was sitting with Steve in the Ben Ali theater, a worn but still lavish and rococo ex-vaudeville house, complete with filigreed box seats on each side, plush velvet curtains, and two balconies. Steve and I had gone to the movies by ourselves, so I must have been at least nine or ten. We were tucked quietly into the worn seats, absorbed by the screen. Someone behind me started tapping my head.
I waited a moment for the tapping to stop. It didn’t. When I turned around to say something, a kid I’d never seen before spat directly into my face.
I can still feel it, how it almost slid across my mouth. I was stunned. I stared at the boy for a few seconds. Then I turned back around and wiped off the spit from my glasses and face and just sat there, without the faintest notion of what I should do, shocked and baffled, paralyzed. That I did nothing, nothing at all, was odd. Apparently the boy thought so too, because he didn’t bother me again. Maybe he was waiting for me to do something, anything, and the longer I sat there without moving, the more nervous he became. Maybe.
It’s not that I never fought. I had several fights with my friends, all of which I “won,” all of which I cried after. Not from physical pain, but from the violence and sourness of our anger, from the strangeness of the urge to hurt someone I cared about. It always felt like some kind of violation, something deeply wrong.
Strangers were in our woods one day, boys we had never seen before, about our age. Accurately or not, I remember them as seeming a little shabby, in a kind of disarray beyond that of boys outside at play, hinting at something threatening like poverty or uncaring parents. I know they were “tough” in a way none of us were.
My brother and I and a couple of friends had gone into the woods for no particular reason, wandering. We knew all the paths, the best thickets for hiding, the sinkhole, the monkey vines. The place was ours by habit and usage — even today I can close my eyes and walk through it.
We discovered these other boys at the back of the woods, in the cleared-out circle of dirt surrounding the biggest tree, a massive old oak called the “treehouse tree” for the remnants of someone’s treehouse ten feet up, still dangling. The boys — four or five of them — had been yelling at each other in play but fell into a wary quiet as we approached. They assembled behind the largest boy and waited.
I don’t remember anything more specific about the encounter, any words or gestures. Probably I indicated in some way our proprietary sense of the woods, but not forcefully. Whatever else happened, and in the absence of argument or any overt gestures, things finally came to the moment when I knew that I — the oldest and one of the biggest and the “chief” of our gang — would have to fight for our right to be there. I didn’t.
By the time Steve and I reached the fringe of the woods and the creek at the edge of our back yard, I was crying — from surprise at the unexpected hostility, from the anger I hadn’t expressed, from sheer frustration, from shame. We opened the back door and there was my father in the kitchen. He noticed my crying and asked me what had happened, and I told him.
Dad led us back into the woods. I don’t remember any explanation, and in fact I can’t retrieve a single word spoken during all of this. It’s as if the whole episode took place as a dumb show, the images supplanting language.
Dad brought me forward, a hand gently on my shoulder, face to face with the boy I didn’t want to fight; whatever he said, we understood that we had to. Maybe there was some feeling of a code being invoked, a tradition being followed. What I remember clearly is the unusual quiet that cloaked our little group, making a tent-like space of the opening in the woods where we had gathered; I remember the not entirely unpleasant sense of being enclosed, if not safe.
The boy and I faced off and the others stood back a little.
About my size, the boy had dark hair and wore an old jacket. In my memory, his face is only a smudge, and I never found out his name. We began to “box,” swinging at each other with tentative swipes and landing a few soft hits, nothing harder than the blows of play-fighting. Then, because the act may have felt sanctioned or because I felt safe with my father there, or both, I swung hard and hit the boy sharply in the mouth. It hurt him. My father stepped in immediately and pushed us lightly apart. The “fight” was over. Those other boys left our woods and never came back.
For a long time, whenever I’ve thought about that episode, its sheer oddness has been tainted with just enough satisfaction to deepen the confusion I’m trying now to resolve. I think I understand what my father did, or thought he was doing. Part of it was an effort to impart a principle — “standing up for yourself.” Possibly he knew already that this wasn’t the first time I’d let myself be cowed. But beyond that there was something about the setup, the scene, that reminds me of a gunfight in a western, a confrontation between two clearly defined representatives of right and wrong — and I don’t believe I’m forcing that interpretation even if my father was acting solely on impulse.
The American West — both the literal and the mythical — shaped my father. More than almost any man I’ve known, he embodies and lives out — at least in his public presentation of himself — the rather worn and discredited ideal of the laconic Western male, “strong, silent.” Uncomplaining, unfailingly patient in public and in private, he never lashed out at me or my brother as we were growing up (barring a few moderate spankings); even as we became more taxing in our teens, he struck — verbally — only a couple of times, memorable because so rare. All of our friends from the neighborhood and our maternal cousins and aunts and uncles recall him as gentle and calm (“recall” because they haven’t seen him in decades since my parents divorced); they speak of his deep voice and size, his pleasant, quiet, automatic authority. And maybe that authority was given extra weight, for me, by the sense I had even as a child that he was holding back, that his demeanor was more a product of his will than his nature. It was something he had worked on, holding back anger, holding back the outward display of strong feelings, like a warrior. To repress yourself was to be a man.
Bare to the waist, his body hair shaved away, my father was on his back, his chest sheathed in thick white bandaging where his breastbone had been split and his chest opened so a valve in his heart could be replaced with one made of plastic and metal. Wires from the electrodes attached to him ran to monitors, and several tubes issued from him, snaking from nose and throat, from the back of his hand. The machines formed a semicircle behind him, at his head, and they combined with the spotlight effect of the lighting in the Intensive Care Unit to render the whole scene theatrical, in a way — as if staged for me. I walked up to the gurney.
Dad was awake but couldn’t raise his head or speak. I asked how he was anyway, whispering, and tried to read his blinks and faint nods as I talked. His eyes seemed unusually clear. I reached out and put my hand in his, and noticed with almost embarrassed surprise how suddenly my forty-year-old hand became as small as a child’s would be in mine.
That Dad looked old was inevitable, laid out that way, silent, subjugated by the technology designed to maintain and protect him. He appeared helpless, and was. His stomach bulged up and his skin was pale and loose. Not much was left of the man whose appearance once caused two little first-graders at my elementary school to stop dead in the hall, staring. My father was passing us at a distance down the hall, heading for a visit with our principal (as president of the PTA or Cubmaster of Pack 86), looking big and trim at thirty-five or so. This was the late fifties, and there was one famous popular figure he did resemble — in a suit, his curling dark hair swept back, with the same large face, the glasses. So I wasn’t really surprised when one of the first-graders whispered earnestly to the other, “It’s Superman!”
A few years ago my father and I were sitting in his TV room in Covina, California, watching an American and a Cuban boxer fight for a medal in the Pan-American Games. I remarked on their quickness.
“I never liked boxing,” Dad said. “The only reason they’re in that ring is to hurt each other. I don’t understand the pleasure in watching that.” I nodded, adding some comment. Then I lapsed into the silence that seems always to dominate our times together.
When my brother and I were young, we enjoyed traveling with Dad once in a while on his business trips to eastern Kentucky. More clearly than anything else, both of us remember those long stretches of time when we would all ride along in silence — a complete, comfortable silence, each of us in separate reveries as the hills and woods slid by. That silence was never hostile or uneasy. It was almost a communion, a peaceable manifestation of our compatible souls.
But what was good about silence in those days is bad in these. Now that my father’s life is closer to an end, both Steve and I feel pressed to be more open with him, and we don’t know how. It’s something we never learned. Too frequently, when I end a visit with my father I’m sad and frustrated, once again having been unable to break through his reserve. Or my own. And what’s worse is that I sense how badly he would like to be easy and demonstrative, to speak what he feels. He’ll follow me outside to my car and we’ll talk for a minute or two, awkwardly, and sometimes shake hands, then I drive away with ashes in my mouth, always looking back as if I might never see him again, which one day will be true.
My mother has never been at all reticent about expressing her feelings. Spontaneous, emotive, even volatile, she could hardly be more unlike my father — to her detriment, I used to believe. Now I know better, and I’m grateful for the lessons none of us knew she was teaching.
As trouble surfaced between my parents in the sixties, and my brother and I drifted apart and into troubles of our own, Scamp spent less and less time with us, preferring to hang around our young cousins, who lived a few blocks away in our newest neighborhood. He liked playing with kids. He would still come by and visit us for a few days, then he would go away again and stay away for a week or so. When Scamp was thirteen, he developed a liver disease, sickened quickly, and died. I remember seeing my brother (eighteen or nineteen at the time) almost staggering around in the front yard, in hazy bright afternoon light, crying. I was embarrassed that he would be so public in his grief, and I think he may have despised me for not showing my tears. I had begun to believe that things would hurt less if I didn’t show pain, and for a while I lived that way. I know I couldn’t help being the person I was, but I’ve found that very hard to forgive.
For years I thought I had spent my boyhood in Eden — a place of beautiful woods and a kid-sized creek, with our big gang of “good” boys, our parents active in school and scouts, our wonderful freedom to roam almost everywhere on our own, even downtown. I felt blessed. In fact, my old neighborhood seemed so “golden” that I began to suspect I was gilding my memory of it, until I discovered that my brother remembers it that way too, as do all our friends from those days.
But there was a snake in that Garden — the snake of anger, one of three “original sins” of Tibetan Buddhism (with Pig/Greed and Rooster/Lust). I grew up believing that it was “bad” to show anger — and for me that belief wound up translating, now and then, into actions that I saw as cowardice. And of course there was the complicating influence of my father’s general stoicism. Or maybe I simplify too much.
A number of years ago my brother and I shared a small house outside Lexington. One evening after supper we wound up, somehow, talking about anger. I told him about an incident in college when I was furious with my girlfriend; I was raging inside and felt explosive, even dangerous. But I didn’t feel I should let that out, not by breaking anything, certainly not by any action toward Barbara. So I took the cigarette I was smoking and stubbed it out on one of my knuckles, grinding it. And my anger went away.
My brother was staring at me, smiling slightly. “How weird,” he said. Leaning forward, he extended both arms until his fisted hands, knuckles up, were close to my face. “Do you see these scars?”