“Next time he does that, tell him he’s a big fat tub o’ lard,” my mother advised.
“What’s a tubba lard?” I asked.
“Don’t you know what lard is? Lard is pig fat. You can buy it in a tub.” she said.
Now I had fresh ammunition for the smart mouthed fatso neighbor kid who regularly had the nerve to shoot his mouth off. I wondered if he would know what a tubba lard was because fightin’words were better if they exploded on impact.
I had a year on Jay Oshenlacher and he had about fifty pounds on me. What I expect he didn’t have was a mother who encouraged him to fight and retaliate, with full permission, using any legal measure possible. In the early eighties, boys who lost a front baby tooth to a nine-year-old girl’s fist at the school bus stop didn’t have their mother on the news, or involve the juvenile authorities and certainly not legislators. In fact, especially in those days, to call a girl’s mother on the phone and demand that she tell her daughter to leave her son alone might have felt as embarrassing as having his gym shorts yanked down in class.
What might make it worse is the girl’s mother smirking while delivering the message from the boy’s mother to, “leave her son alone” to the nine-year-old girl with no further consequences. Perhaps in the girl’s mother’s mind, that nine-year-old girl would not grow up to become a battered legacy that she herself had only escaped five years earlier. Her new husband never laid a hand on her.
“Shut up you big, fat tubba lard!” I shouted at the Oshenlacher kid who was laughing and pointing at me from across the street. I had just wiped out on the sidewalk slamming down square on my behind after my roller skates had gotten ahead of my body.
“What’d you say?” he piped back, fists at his sides.
“I said, shut up you big-fat-tubba-lard!” I screamed, returning to my wheels. I thought he might charge at me, but in a beat, he whipped around and took his porch steps two at a time, slamming his front door behind him.
I’d showed him—and he’d showed weakness. It was on.
Fighting neighborhood kids with my fists, objects or words would never move the needle in my household, but I could also never predict what offense might earn a beating. The punishments were usually more than ten, but less than twenty-five lashes. I can’t really say for sure how many at a time as I would always lose count. The beatings were always stoically administered, though with great force, by my stepfather. They always took place in my bedroom, and all but once, he required that I submit to him bent over my bed with my hands under my belly. He joined my mother in this administering role when I was seven. Each time, I thought my eyes would burst from the pressure. My face swelled as I held my breath, trying to resist crying out as long as I could. My bedroom window would often be open and I could hear the neighborhood kids playing ball or hollering at one another. I tried to stay strong until I eventually lost all awareness of their sounds. I tried to maintain my presence of mind in the name of my own dignity. I didn’t want my friends to hear my incoherent pleading and my animalistic screams as spit sprayed through my clenched teeth and drizzled down my chin onto the brown, threadbare gingham bed spread. When I would finally be left alone, sobbing through spasms of breath, my hands webbed with snot, I could feel the overlapping, raised tracks of blood blisters and red-violet mimeographs from the tooled leather strap pulsing and burning like iron burns over my the soft skin of my butt and thighs. My soul screamed, echoing throughout my mind and body, pleading for my father to come and save me, audible to no one. One bare legged strapping from my mother before school one morning silenced my one time dare to call out his name—after which she threw a pair of tights at me to wear under my Brownie Scout uniform.
My stepfather was a man of at least twenty-times my own strength who used his own belt, often at the behest of my mother, to administer his brand of justice for crimes ranging from basic disobedience and irresponsibility, to the single incident of silent but indignant insubordination I presented at fifteen. His belt burst blood vessels in my right wrist before I was ordered to return outdoors, immediately, to follow through with his yard work orders. The physical evidence of these vignettes would generally fade before a month’s end. There were times I wished one of them would go too far and the beating would kill me, leaving them finally with someone to answer to.
I worked on a good name bender one evening in sixth grade after Oshenlacher had again stomped my nerves. It had to be a good one. The problem was, what rhymes with “Oshenlacher? Sounds like, “Ah-shen-locker”. Until then, he had probably been safe with a name like that. Leave it to the budding wordsmith with an axe to grind to come up with something that would stick.
“Hey, OCEAN LINER!” I shot at him one morning at the school bus stop with a full audience. “Hey, OCEAN LINER!”
He ignored me.
Of course, I wasn’t satisfied. I raised the price of poker and continued my campaign on the school bus until he sat red faced amongst the snickering passengers nearby. Later that day, I let my mother in on the score—and of course, as far as the both of us were concerned, Jay Oshenlacher had earned his new moniker, or at least that’s how I interpreted her smirky eye roll. After all, hadn’t that kid been asking for it?
Oshenlacher and I continued growing up on the same suburban, middle class street and the taunting between us became passé as adolescence brewed, but the “Ocean Liner” branding I’d given him would not fade.
The high school days we lived in were of the William “The Refrigerator” Perry of the Chicago Bears era, and Blue River High School’s legendary, “Ocean Liner” struck as much proportionate fear in the hearts of high school varsity boys in our region as Perry. Jay “Ocean Liner” was the man on the scene. And, to be clear, only Jay Oshenlacher deserves the credit for being this kind of hero to his teammates and most of all, to himself. Admitting that I dubbed him, “Ocean Liner” is a source of shame for me that I cannot requite. For every moment of shame or pain I deflected in his direction when we were kids, he deserved every moment of applause aimed at him, every slap on the back from appreciative teammates, every proud moment of triumph and recognition he eventually earned carrying the very name that was meant to level the playing field so many years ago. We are all fortunate that it turned out this way—a beautiful example of the Universe delicately and purposefully balancing the books. Whether as children we must be held accountable for our misdeeds and hurtful actions or whether we shouldn’t; whether I am a victim among victims, or I am not, my soul must genuflect at Jay’s courage. And, my dear Jay, I seek your forgiveness, I celebrate your successes both then and today knowing well I own no part in either.
The abuse I endured as a little girl and young woman imprinted my soul, as it might anyone’s. The compassionate, loving, bold soul that is me, my inherent design, never felt congruent with any of the above. The shame, helplessness, sorrow and disillusionment ignited in my childhood knew no expiration of need until I began to tell my Truth. And so, I testify.