It had been nearly a year since we’d seen each other, yet before we reached the entrance to the stadium our standard fare of bantering began. My oldest brother, Ronnie, blamed me for the bad directions that resulted in his getting lost on the way to the ballpark. For his part, Ricky, my middle brother, continued to razz Ronnie about the fact that if he wasn’t so cheap, he could have gotten a GPS system in his new Cadillac which would have kept him from getting lost in the first place.
“Peanuts! Cold beer!” a young man shouted as we made our way towards the seats along the first-base line.
“Over here!” Ricky yelled to the vendor.
As we settled into the old wooden seats, it was apparent that this wasn’t the first beer Ricky had had today. And since he wasn’t going to be the one driving back to Richmond tonight, it wasn’t to be his last either.
“Ronnie’s drivin’,” he would say aloud each time he motioned to the beer vendor. Even though neither Ronnie nor I had questioned our brother about the number of beers he was consuming, it seemed he felt the need to demonstrate he had some unvoiced approval whenever he ordered another beer. “I can just spread out across the backseat of that Cadillac,” he laughed.
As one inning stretched into another, each of us gave our opinions about the talent being demonstrated by the various players of the home team as well as the visitors’. As we watched men strike out, pop up or hit infield grounders, we felt it was obvious to all within earshot that we were the ones who should have been on the field – or at least in the dugout. But within a moment, the cleverness and sarcasm of our conversation took on a more serious tone as the visiting team’s first baseman was felled by a line drive to the head.
“Damn, that’s gotta hurt,” Ricky said.
The entire stadium sat silent for a moment … until gradually, with trainers and medical staff on either side of him, the fallen player began to slowly make his way back onto his feet.
As the player was escorted to the dugout, Ricky began to speak again. But amidst the silence which had entwined the entire stadium within the last few moments, something had changed. How it had happened or for whatever reason I wasn’t quite sure, but just as the first baseman had fallen, Ricky had fallen as well … not in the physical sense, but rather through some trick of memory or madness. He had fallen back nearly 40 years, to a time when we were three young boys desperately trying to survive life with a father filled with rage, violence and hatredAnd as Ronnie and I stood there next to him, we traveled to that place with him … to a childhood that had been best forgotten.
“You know,” Ricky pondered aloud, “I still can’t figure out what Mumma musta’ said to Daddy that time I bled.” Neither Ronnie nor I said a word, but we knew too well the landscape of his thoughts.
We were southern boys, at least until our jobs and marriages had pulled us to different cities and states. And in June, 1968, we lived on a small farm in Mechanicsville, Virginia, a few miles northeast of Richmond. At the end of that summer, Ronnie would be a junior in high school; Ricky would be in the tenth grade and I would be in the seventh. But before any of that would happen, there were chickens to feed, eggs to collect and strawberries to be picked from the large field down the hill behind the farmhouse.
It was a Saturday afternoon as I remember it, a lazy time when neither my brothers nor I felt much like picking strawberries- especially on a day that marked the beginning of our school vacation. But Daddy already had more than a few beers in his belly and was insisting that there were strawberries out there needing to be picked before the birds got to them. And if we couldn’t find any strawberries, then surely we could find some weeds to pull.
Once Daddy had spoken, Ronnie, Ricky and I headed out to the field and began our work. As we looked over more than a dozen long rows of ripening berries, we decided that each of us should take a row to pick berries and pull weeds. It seemed like a good idea, and would probably have been the quickest way to finish our work had I not decided that since this was the weekend, we should have some fun while we were working.
As I bent down to pull a few weeds, I noticed a large dirt clod – about the size of my fist – on the ground just within my reach. The clod consisted of mud, no grass or weeds, and it was hard – rock hard – more oval than round – with lots of nooks and crevices. And I’ll have to admit all these years later that I really didn’t give a whole lot of thought to my actions that afternoon. I only thought about what fun it would be to throw that hard clod of dried mud and rock at one of my brothers. After all, they were always giving me grief of some sort or another, the way boys have always bullied their youngest brother. Even before I picked up the clod, in my mind’s eye I could see it hitting one of them squarely in the back and bustin’ all to pieces. So, without any more thought, I picked up the clod and threw it as accurately and as hard as I could at the brother who was closest; and at that moment, it happened to be Ricky.
As I threw what had to be one of the best pitches of my young life, Ricky’s back was turned to me, somewhat bent over and exposed – as he was busy pickin’ something – either strawberries or weeds. Within a second of my releasing it, the clod made a loud, dull thump as it hit the middle of his back. For a quick moment, I could not contain my excitement, laughing with joy and pride at how well I had found my target. But an instant later, I realized that while I might have made one of my best pitches, I had also made one of my greatest mistakes: a terrible miscalculation in thinking. In my eagerness to throw, I had forgotten that out of every living human being I had ever met or probably ever would meet in my entire life, Ricky was the one who was the most unforgiving. I had failed to recall how he was the one who would go out of his way to exact vengeance on anyone who dared show malice toward him. But perhaps most importantly, I had forgotten how strong he was and that the dirt clod he would throw back at me would be bigger, harder and aimed for my head, not my body.
In less time than it took for me to look to the ground for more ammunition, Ricky had launched two dirt clods back at me: one hitting me in the thigh, the other smacking me in the center of my face. Stunned, my knees gave way and I fell to the ground trying to understand what had happened. My eyes watered from pain and dust as I reached for my mouth to see what teeth I might have lost. Pulling my hand away, a steady stream of blood began to trickle from my lips and gums. To my relief, all the teeth were still there, but I was hurting and I was crying.
With my hand over my mouth and blood seeping through my fingers, I ran through the field, across the yard, up the back stairs, onto the porch and into the kitchen of our old farmhouse. While my destination had been the bathroom, which was on the second floor, as soon as I came into the house, I was met by my mother and father sitting at the kitchen table. In all honesty, had I known my parents would be sitting at the table, I would have chosen a different route, but by the time they saw me it was too late.
“What happened?” my mother shouted as she saw the blood oozing through my fingers.
“Ricky hit me with a dirt clod.” I had said the first thing that had come to mind.
“See!” Mumma said glaring at my father.
“Goddamn that boy…,” my father swore, clenching his teeth as he jumped up from a kitchen chair. Within a second, Daddy was out the kitchen door with Mumma right behind him. Grabbing a dishcloth, I wiped the blood from my mouth and walked out after them.
Once they had seen I was bleeding, Ronnie and Ricky had started to make their way back to the house from the strawberry fields. As it turned out, my brothers’ concern brought them to the back stairs just as Daddy was coming down. Perhaps if Ricky had not been so concerned – if he had not come up to the house – he would have still been out in the field when Daddy came after him. That way, he could have easily out-run our father. But it just didn’t happen that way.
As they started up stairs, Daddy lunged forward and grabbed Ricky’s wrist, gripping him tightly. Then in a single, fluid motion, as if he had practiced it a thousand times, while holding Ricky’s arm with one hand, Daddy unfastened his own belt with his other hand, and yanked it from the loops of his pants.
Knowing what was coming, Ricky began pleading with my father, desperately trying to hold back the rage that was mounting against him.
“Daddy, I didn’t mean to … please, don’t!”
Ignoring my brother’s cries, Daddy began whipping Ricky – slowly at first as if he was trying to find his mark – and then striking him with greater accuracy and deliberation with each successive swing of the belt.
“Goddamn you, boy!”
“Please, Daddy – Daddy, please! Stop!”
The thin narrow belt made loud cracking noises each time it snapped against the exposed skin of Ricky’s bare legs. As the whipping grew more intense, Daddy began sweating while spit sprayed from his mouth as he continued to curse and swear at my brother. Blood had now begun weeping through the cuts and welts that appeared on Ricky’s legs.
“Daddy, I’m sorry ….”
And my father continued.
“You gonna …,” my father began. Daddy now swung the belt so hard that he seemed unable to remember what it was he was going to say. His arm flung the strap wildly, yet each time still managed to hit his mark.
“You gonna do it again?” he finally said after a few more strikes. Ricky was now in such pain and crying so uncontrollably that he could barely answer.
“N-n-no, s-s-sir ….”
“Richard, that’s enough!” my mother said without much effect.
A moment or two later, our father stopped, exhausted from the ordeal. Ricky collapsed to the ground, sobbing and shaking in uncontrollable spasms, not fully understanding what had just happened or why.
As Mumma and Daddy walked up the porch stairs and back into the house, Ronnie and I stood staring at our middle brother writhing in pain. And in the agony of the moment, we wondered if the two of us should not have been whipped as well. Perhaps then we, too, would have had visible scars to explain the pain we felt at that moment.
In the days and weeks that followed, even though the weather was hot, Ricky always wore long pants instead of shorts, making sure the wounds on his legs remained out of sight. But they have never been out of mind.
For more than forty years now, I have pondered the events of that Saturday afternoon. Ever so secretly, in the depths of my soul when all is quiet and I can hear the beating of my own heart, I wonder if somehow I was to blame for the pain, for the terror he endured that day and in the days, months and years that followed when we stood unprotected in our father’s fields.
“That’s the way childhood is for some folks,” a fellow told me years later. “If you survive it, you spend the rest of your life feeling guilty.”
“Peanuts! Cold beer!”
“Over here … Ronnie’s drivin’.”