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Breaking the Cycle of Abuse

A father physically and emotionally abuses his 10-year-old son for the last time when an unexpected angel steps in.

By Robert Plummer, Marietta, Georgia

As appeared in

There was once a boy who loved the things 10-year-old boys in the 1940s loved: ice cream, Jack Armstrong on the radio, Sunday school, cowboys and Indians—especially Indians. But this boy had a terrible secret. He lived in dread of his father, a dread that made him feel he was never safe.

That boy growing up in Columbus, Ohio, was me. I tried to love my father because I did not know other boys weren't beaten when they spilled a glass or broke a toy. But mostly I feared him. I feared his very shadow.

He was a stocky, muscular man whose roaring voice gave an extra dimension of profanity to the curses he spewed when he had been drinking, which was often. He liked to use a leather strap, cracking it like a lion tamer. A lion tamer rarely lets his whip touch the animals. On me, Dad's strap always left a reminder of his untamable fury. I wondered why my father was so full of anger and if it was my fault.

When my mother tried to stop him, she learned soon enough that any intervention on her part only provoked greater punishment for us both. We simply tried not to upset him, especially when he was drunk.

One pleasure my mother and I enjoyed together, though, was church. I especially loved Sunday school, where I discovered a father who was not frightening but all-loving and all-forgiving, who had creatures at his command called angels. We were taught he would send them to us in times of need. I thought a lot about angels and what they looked like, and I prayed I would not be frightened if I ever did see one. I spent so much of my boyhood in fear.

I loved to sing in church. At school I could hardly wait until music period so I could throw myself into "God Bless America" and "Battle Hymn of the Republic." I had a strong voice too. If someone had asked me my greatest ambition, I would have answered without missing a beat: "Traveling the world, singing with an orchestra like Lawrence Welk's!" When I sang, I felt free from fear.

Though my father held a steady job in sales, we were not well-off due to his carousing, and he often used debts and the hard hours at work as excuses for his drinking. One September day it all came together in an explosion of rage.

That morning my father reminded me to do my chores—not that I ever needed reminding. There was the devil to pay if I forgot. After school I cleaned the house and settled into the den to listen to The Lone Ranger on the radio. Transported by the sounds of galloping hooves and ricocheting gunshots, I barely noticed my father come home until I heard him bellow, "Bob, did you do your work?"

"Yes, Pa," I answered.

I hoped he would go upstairs and sleep, but instead I heard his lurching footsteps heading for the living room, followed by muttered curses and something crashing to the floor. My whole body began to quake.

"Get in here, boy!" he roared.

I snapped off the radio, my mouth as dry as dust, and went to my father. His face was flushed and his eyes smoldered ominously.

"You telling me you cleaned this room?"

"Yes, Pa...."

"Liar!" He kicked the scattered pieces of a broken lamp across the floor. "What about that mess?" He began to loosen his necktie, a bad sign.

I knew better than to argue. He grabbed me by the collar and dragged me toward the basement door. In one swift movement he reached behind it, snatched his old, heavy leather belt and pulled me down the stairs, my heels clattering on the steps. I was so scared I could hardly breathe.

He yanked on the light chain. The suspended bulb swung crazily and shadows convulsed on the walls. A small length of clothesline hung from a pipe running along the ceiling; my father used it to tie my hands to the pipe so that my feet dangled above the floor. He jerked the back of my shirt up over my shoulders.

"Now," he snarled, snapping the leather belt, "I'll teach you!"