The Scar That Gave Me Life – Kelley Silver
How an act of brutality in 1950 paved the way for my existence
CW: child abuse
When my father was very young, everyone called him Junior, for obvious reasons. His sisters and nieces still call him that today. My dad is larger than life. He’s a hulk of a man with skin tanned to leather from decades working outdoors. He’s been retired from climbing power poles for 20 years, and he’s in his late 70’s, but he’s still strong as a bull. And with good reason too as he sets an alarm for 3 AM, wakes up and eats a bowl of blueberries and yogurt, then walks and works out for an hour or two while my mother is still snoozing peacefully. He says it’s to keep his sugar in check, but don’t let him fool you. Men who grow up handsome have a hard time growing old. Vanity dies a hard death.
But boy was he a looker. He and my mother were both gorgeous. Him in an Elvis type of way, and her in a Dixie Carter type of way. They still look damn fine for their age. He’s always the center of attention in every room but especially if that room is full of women. I find him to be a polarizing figure; people love him or hate him, but most people love him. He still holds grudges from fifty years ago, and he loves my mother fiercer than any man could. One of my favorite memories of my father is one day when I was in high school, I was watching an episode of Oprah where she was interviewing Cindy Crawford. My dad walked through the room and said, “Wow, she ain’t ugly. She’s not your mama, but she ain’t ugly.” That’s the only time I ever heard him praise (even a little) another woman’s looks.
When my dad was a young boy, definitely under the age of twelve, his father strapped him spread-eagle to a bed and held a hot light bulb to his thigh until it burned through to the bone. Accounts differ on what year it was exactly since children’s memories aren’t reliable narrators, but his best guess is 1950. At any rate, it eventually healed and formed a pretty ghastly scar on his leg.
Later, when he tried to enlist to go to Vietnam, the army turned him down because of that scar. They said he had a bum leg, but he could be in the reserves. He did a couple years in the reserves during the early years of his marriage to my mom, jumped out of exactly one airplane, and that was the extent of his military service. My dad rarely corrects me (because he thinks I’m perfect), but one time I wished him a Happy Veteran’s Day, and he said he wasn’t a veteran. It surprised me because I’d always thought of him as one because there’s a photo of him in his military uniform in one of my mom’s old photo albums and also because he tells stories of being at Fort Jackson.
I didn’t realize until that day that he didn’t consider himself a veteran and that his lack of service was a point on which he would not budge. I think he just didn’t want to “steal valor,” as the kids are saying these days, but it spoke so loudly to me about the type of man my father is and has always been. My dad, for better or for worse, will brag about anything. He will brag about my mother’s beauty; he will brag about his first muscle car and how he used the insurance money when someone stole it to buy my mom’s wedding set; fights he had forty years ago; catching a thief at work who had stolen one of his tools; how the ladies have always loved to hear him sing because he sounds like Elvis. The man loves to brag. But not about his service, minimal as it may have been to some.
Maybe his shyness about his (non?)service is a generational thing. He couldn’t serve when others his age could. Maybe it’s a patriotic thing. Maybe it’s a masculinity thing. Maybe it’s born out of the shame of his own father, who indeed fought in two wars but was also a spectacularly awful human being. That man may have had a full military funeral and been interred in a national cemetery, but his own children took their “funeral flowers” home rather than leave him anything. I will never, as long as I live, forget sitting in the funeral parlor visitation room. I was sitting across from the open casket, lost in thought, wondering whose idea it was to stitch a patriotic quote on the interior of the casket lining. Apropos of nothing, I heard one of my aunts say out loud to anyone who could hear, “These flowers are gonna look real nice in my living room.” I raised a questioning eyebrow, and she said, “I picked out the color special.” There was no love lost.
The only tears I saw shed that day were actually during a patriotic moment. When the soldiers folded the flag and handed it to my father in that neat little triangle, I saw my sweet daddy’s shoulders shake. I was seated directly behind him, and it nearly broke me. I knew he wasn’t crying tears because he’d miss his dad or because he loved him so much. It was more the closing of an awful, hideous chapter of his life. It was closure. Or at least partial closure; his mother and “stepmother” were still living, and they weren’t exactly blameless. I’m sure my father was crying for many things really: the loss of his youth, the loss of a parent, the loss of knowing his father treated him so abominably, the joy in knowing how far he himself had come from when he was under that man’s boot. I’ve always hoped that when we buried that man, we buried some of Daddy’s pain and hurt as well, but I don’t know. Without therapy, that’s hard to do, and men of my father’s generation just don’t really do therapy.
My grandfather stole so much from my dad. He stole his childhood, his innocence, his sense of peace, and even his military service. The selfish part of me says it’s a blessing he didn’t have to go to war because who knows what might have happened. That that scar on his leg was the only real gift my grandfather ever gave him that amounted to any sort of value. But it’s hard to hear that side of my brain when I know my father would have been a great soldier and would have fought bravely for his country. Obviously, there are a million unknowns. Would he have made it out alive? If he had died overseas, would my mother ever have loved again? Clearly, I wouldn’t be here, but would she have had a whole other family? Would he have come back a broken man, like so many others?
The reality is he had suffered enough trauma to last a lifetime. The light bulb incident was just one of many. I’m grateful the army said no. I’m grateful for that scar, and I’m grateful for the asshole who put it there.