I’ve tried very hard to write this before but it was far too painful. Just so you know, I am going to post this and go to bed, no drama, so please, nobody worries, OK? Zoe Taylor’s, “Boys Don’t Cry” inspired this. It is only a vignette, this time, I intend to publish this irregularly until it is complete and then to publish it publicly.
This story is absolutely true. There is not one iota of embellishment in it.
This is not for the faint of heart or those who are easily triggered. You are warned.
She’d been sitting quietly with the family around the puffing wood stove. The rest of the rooms in the un-insulated 1860’s shack were chilled to the point that water in a glass would sometimes freeze at night, but this room was quite pleasantly warm, and in fact so warm that she’d actually lain on the worn, bare unfinished wooden floor in front of the stove to get out of the heat for a while.
The old house on rural farm land in the Willamette Valley, Ladd Hill, Oregon had no inside plumbing save one cold water faucet that ran into a sink that drained through the wall and out to the grassy area at the side of the crude wood structure. It had been built of pine poles with the bark still on them, and sided with still barked, wood “half rounds” from some mill. The “half rounds” weren’t really half a log but the rounded section on the edge of a log that the saw cut off before they began to cut dimensional lumber. There was an outhouse in the back yard for sanitary needs, and once a week baths were given in a washtub in the primitive kitchen; the water heated on the wood cook stove.
Lying there, she’d looked up at the clouds of cigarette smoke that hung stratified at different levels in the room. It looked so surreal, and in the very early 50’s no one had any idea that the smoke could be harmful to anyone.
Cooled somewhat, she got up and sat back down in the chair next to Sis. The conversation drifted from how much the over fired wood stove was shaking, to how much easier it was to use the tractor her brothers had purchased to run the huge buzz saw to cut the fire wood instead the two man cross cut saw, and then on to how the boys wanted to rig the horse plow to the tractor so they would not have to use the horse to pull it.
Her illiterate Amish step father was telling her big brothers that the horse was the better way to plow; pointedly letting them know it was how men folk did it. To her, he was really stupid because he’d angrily told her that she was a boy and not a girl like mommy and sis. Her stepfather had been raised in an extremely abusive house hold near Lancaster, PA. So he knew all about living simple and how children were seen, but not heard.
At the time she did not know that he’d soon beat her half to death again, this time telling her, you will act like a boy or I will kill you. He’d repeat the same speech several times in the coming years every time she let her true nature out too much, it would happen again. Most other nights of the week, he’d look her up as soon as he got home from work and start yelling at her for not getting some chore done the way he wanted it, then she’d hear the slap of his belt as he took it off. She’d stand there quaking; knowing he would beat her mercilessly despite her most impassioned pleas to not hurt her. Then, when he’d finish, rather than let her weep until she could stop, he’d angrily tell her, “God damn you, stop crying or I’ll give you a reason to cry, you little son of a bitch”. So, she’d sniff, and try to stop shuddering, all the while he looked at her. “God damn you little fucking sissy, pull that lip in you little shit”.
Eventually, he’d leave her alone if she was quiet enough and then she could sneak off to her bed to hide. She’d quietly begin to sob again, being oh so careful so that he could not hear. Once she’d gotten too loud and he pulled her out of bed to beat her again. After that, she worked very hard to conceal her emotions; something very hard for a 5 year old.
She was extremely afraid of him because the first time she met him, it was back in San Diego. She’d been playing in her room and suddenly she could hear this new man that she’d never seen before and mommy arguing, “But Cliff, Gwen is just a baby, don’t hurt her.”
“God damn it Lucille, Gwen is a boy and I am gonna fix that long hair right now”!
They fought back and forth for quite a while and then mom starting crying and screaming, really frightening her.
He’d stomped into the room, grabbed her by the arm, and tore off her little dress, leaving only her panties. His rough handling, loud cursing and threats made little Gwen begin to quake in fear. He got these hand operated clippers, which were dull and began to cut her hair off so that it was very uneven and almost scalp length. The clippers painfully pulled, making her scream in pain. So, he’d alternately hit her with his open hand and then cut some more hair. When it was done, she was nearly bald, and so shaken that mom took her into the bath room to wash off the hair, put a fresh diaper on her and put her to bed with a bottle.
Gwen sat there looking around the room at her three big brothers and Cliff, her stepfather. ‘I’m not like them. They are so mean to me.’
Then she looked at her step sister and mom. ‘No, I want to be like them. I hate the mean ones.
With that, she got up and went into Gloria Jean’s room. Seeing her skirt on the back of a chair, she put it on. It was so long that she had to pull the waist band up under her arms. Then, she walked back into the front room with the family and sat down by her mom. Now she’d made herself more like the girls, not the men. She hated the men. They were always so mean.
It was really quiet when she sat down by mommy.
“Mom, Gwen has my skirt on”. Gloria shouted in indignation.
“Gwen, go take Gloria’s skirt off right now”. Mom said.
Gwen’s step father just had to get into the act too. “God damn you little shit, what the fuck are you doing? You want to be a girl”? He shouted.
Still not getting it, Gwen said, “Yes, I want to be like mommy and Gloria”.
“OK, God Damn you, I will make you a girl.” Confused, Gwen looked at him innocently.
Even as young as she was, Gwen knew that he was mad and was going to hurt her really badly this time. He grabbed one of his sweat shirts and put it on her after Gloria had taken her skirt back. Then he began to taunt her; making fun of her, ridiculing her. Gwen began to cry; mom remaining silent. Everyone else in the family was silent too because none of them wanted to be his next target.
“God damn you, you little sissy, shut the fuck up or I’ll give you a reason to cry!”
She eventually stopped crying, and it terrified her to be sniffing deeply once in a while. She was unable to control that.
To this day, it is one of the ways she knows that she is upset. She’s so adept at hiding her feelings, even from herself, that she’d never know it were it not for the uncontrollable sigh that escapes then. It is very hard to dig around in her own head, find the feelings and console herself. No one else is there.
Around 1959, the family moved from Ladd Hill into Portland because her stepfather had a double hernia from straining too much while using a horse drawn earth scoop to dig out the hole for the foundation of their new house.
The previous one had burned down several months ago. The cause was an old belt drive refrigerator whose belt had started squeaking and to stop that, Cliff the stepfather, had oiled it. Later the oil ignited and the flames rapidly spread to the house, and the wood with pine pitch all over it went up like a torch. The house was a small pile of ash in less than 5 minutes.
She had been the last one to escape it, and probably only survived because she was too short to reach the superheated layer of smoke above her head. When she did awaken, it was dark, the lights were off, it was hot and she could hear both the roar of the fire and indistinct hysterical shouting. Becoming frightened herself, little Gwen screamed for Mommy several times before anyone heard her. No one could find her, not believing that she could still be in the house. Finally, Mommy came up on the porch, close to the raging inferno, and coached Gwen to the front door. At first she went to the wrong side of the door and got pinned to the wall when Mommy opened it, but in a moment, she could feel Mommy’s hand reach around the door and grab her tiny arm.
Mommy rushed her off the Porch and as they reached the ground, the porch and the rest of the primitive structure collapsed literally at their heels. Mommy quickly took her out to their 1947 Chevrolet Sedan and put her in, admonishing her firmly to remain in the car.
A few minutes after the house was just a shallow pile of ash, the rural fire department arrived. Far too late to do any good, they did not even take hoses off their trucks.
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