A Change is Gonna Come
On September 20th, 1946, on a beautiful clear morning, I was born to Cecile Belle Jordan and John Herbert Wagner Jr., in Fairfax County, Virginia. I was the first child of Cecile and John and would prove to be the last living thing that their damned union ever produced. We lived not far from the hospital for the first few months of my life, but we quickly relocated back to Cecile’s family home in North Carolina, where I would spend the formative years of my youth.
Running water and electricity, are both conveniences that existed long before 1946 and that many people cannot imagine life without, but these were pleasures that the hill folk in Borea County, North Carolina, still did not have access to. That doesn’t mean that we didn’t bathe or cook, we just had to do things differently. This was one of the first lessons I learned as a child. I was different; different from my friends, different from my cousins and different from everyone I knew. I watched as other children in the area got called in to wash up for supper. I on the other hand never got called to come in, rather, I avoided going home like the plague.
I lived in a log cabin with nine of my cousins and all of their parents. We gave new meaning to the term, “close family”. You can’t get much closer than sleeping in piles in a small cabin with dirt floors, no electricity and a lack of running water. We would walk to the river and fetch buckets of fresh water to bring home to boil for dinner and also to fill the washbasin. My mother would journey several miles into town to purchase food to feed all of us for a week, a single 5 lb. sack of flour and sometimes even a link of sausage. It’s easy to see how the youngest and smallest of the children would get left without much food. It was survival of the fittest and at that point I was certainly not the most fit.
Franklin D. Roosevelt had been president of the country for more than 12 years before he died, and was in the midst of ending World War II and leading the country out of the great Depression when he passed away leaving Truman in office in 1945. The world was already on an upswing by the time I was born, but you wouldn’t have known that was happening by what went on in Appalachia; we were all still pretty depressed. Clothes were hand-me-downs and you were lucky if you got a single pair of shoes to last you for the year.
My mother, Cecile Belle was a hardworking girl of 18 when she brought me into this world, maybe an adult by legal standards, but she hadn’t had the life experience of a typical adult, before I came into the picture. I cannot say if she resented me or not for sure, I can only say that it sure seemed like it. The easiest way to explain my relationship with my mother is to attempt to understand the relationships that existed between herself and her family before I was introduced to the scene.
Rape, incest and abuse were just a few of the defining characteristics that Cecile experienced during her time as a Jordan in North Carolina. My mother was born into a family with four children. Three boys and herself. Her brothers were all older and seemed to have been born bad. Jim, Tommy and Hill still lived in the cabin with us when I was growing up there, all those years later. They had added some of their own wives and children to the brood but none of them could afford their own places. That was how we all ended up in that cabin together, fighting for our lives.
Jim and Tommy tortured their sister throughout her developmental years, there simply was not much else for them to do, and while he was better, Hill was no saint either. Jim was the ring leader, the spitting image of their father, an abusive alcoholic who instilled twisted ideals in his children, especially the boys. Tommy was your typical side-kick, always there to chide and tease, and occasionally to twist the knife in a little deeper. With two brothers with a serious mean streak, there wasn’t much Hill could do to avoid being painted with the same brush. He had a soft-spot for his sister, but if he let it show too often, he would quickly become the target of Jim’s aggressions.
Cecile was a beautiful girl and she was the only one of them with the brains and work ethic to leave the countryside. Beginning at age 14, she would commute out of the hills for work and actually had managed to build a potential future for herself. She tried to rise above the madness of her brother Jim, striving to leave his brutality behind. Jim beat his siblings, his young wife and their children unmercifully for any reason that presented itself. He would have them pick switches off of the trees or use any other item he could get his hands on to inflict pain. If the physical abuse wasn’t bad enough, sexual abuse was also not uncommon and Jim made sure that Cecile knew that she was not better than him or the woods in which they lived. He beat her down in every way imaginable, which was the main reason behind her leaving home for Virginia, where she met John Herbert.
I wish I could say things got better for Cecile when I was born, but my father was a womanizing drunk and really had not planned to ever have a family. He was a traveling trucker and would leave for weeks on end with no word as to when he would return or for how long. When he did come home it was to berate my mother and beat her. With a new baby Cecile needed help, even if it was the worst kind of help. She packed our few things, grabbed me, and returned to the scene of what must have been a grizzly childhood for her, only to begin to subject me to the kinds of torture she herself had already survived.
After our return, Cecile again began leaving for work outside the area and this did nothing but anger Jim more. He just could not understand what she did not get the first time. If leaving before had done nothing to better her, what did she think was going to happen now? Not only was she back drawing on the families few resources, but she had brought with her yet another screaming mouth to feed. The only difference was that he now had me to take his anger and aggressions out on in Cecile’s absence. I was the youngest and by far the smallest of the nine cousins that lived in the cabin and therefore the easiest to catch. I would get beat from the minute Jim woke until Cecile returned from work. He would then turn his hatred towards her. You must be wondering why she left me there, seeing how I looked when she came home. You could also wonder why Tommy and Hill didn’t stand up to Jim either. I can’t answer those questions. I can only guess that this was the only life any of them had ever known and they had all survived it, as would I.
My mother did make one major attempt to see that I was safe during her absences. While she was working in town she met a nice family that seemed trustworthy. Somehow she arranged for me to stay in the safety of their home during the day while she worked. She would get to come visit me on her breaks and she knew I was tucked safely away from Jim’s violent hands. It was strange to be a part of someone else’s home and see how they all functioned without hurting one another. In the mornings, I would arrive around breakfast time and get to feel a part of something that wasn’t so deranged. They had their own children in the house and they actually let me play with them. This was the only place that I was not being used as a human punching bag. Eventually, the family approached Cecile after I had been staying with them for about a year. They wanted to know if they could adopt me. I never went to their house again. Looking back, I wonder how my life would have unfolded had she given me to them, but part of me feels it really couldn’t have been that different. To be honest, I believe that some people are born with suffering in their blood, and no matter how the circumstances change they will still be drawn to tragedy.
As I got older I got a little bit smarter. I would leave when my mother left for work in the morning and try to stay hidden until she came home. This worked at times, but others it just made Jim angrier when I did come back. As a child it was very difficult to figure out what I had done wrong. I got beat when I stayed. I got beat when I left. I got beat when I was good. I really got beat when I was bad. You can’t expect to learn right from wrong if all of your consequences and rewards are the same. You lose the ability to differentiate between what is a deserved punishment and what will happen if you behave well. There was no consistency, no way to learn any of life’s lessons in such a hostile environment.
When I reflect back on my childhood, looking to see if there was any one thing that happened that made me the way that I am; there is one day in particular that I return to. I was four years old, sitting on a log in the woods. I was hiding for the day and I thought I had a pretty good spot picked out. That is, until I heard the screams. I heard Jim shouting and my mother screaming for dear life; I also heard Tommy, or maybe it was Hill, running after them, some of the details have gotten lost, as my memories have begun to blur around the edges. The picture that I can see crystal clear, is of Jim, coming into the clearing, dragging Cecile by her hair. Jim had a gun.
He pointed it straight at me and said, “I’ll shoot anyone who tries to stop me.”
I stood frozen in the clearing not able to move waiting for what was next. The next twenty minutes aren’t as clear to me, but I remember the gist of what happened. Jim beat and raped my mother, while I watched. I stood and watched as he leaned the gun against a tree, mere feet away from me. I could have saved her. I could have stopped him; I could have saved us. Yet instead I did nothing but stand there. What was wrong with me that I didn’t stop him?
When he was done, Jim grabbed his gun and looked at me. His eyes seemed to scream at me that I was a failure, worthless and powerless just like my mother. I felt my lower lip quiver and the tears started to stream faster and faster down my face. I used my fists to wipe away my tears when I felt a hand on my chin. My mother stood before me, her eyelid swollen shut, and blood trickling from a cut on the side of her mouth. Her eyes had a different message. Instead of pain I saw fire.
“Put your chin up. You don’t let nothing that bastard does make you cry. You hear me? Crying doesn’t do any good except to get your shirt wet. You be brave now, we’re still alive aren’t we?” she said, grabbing my hand.
She squeezed it as we walked back towards the cabin. With her chin held high and her eyes straight ahead, Cecile showed me how to survive, one foot in front of the other, pushing on through her pain.
That day changed me in a way that is hard to put into words. I stayed away all the time after that. Every morning I would wander as far from home as I could, and just try to forget what I saw while sitting on the log. Eventually, I succeeded in forgetting some, as I believe the memory is as blurry as it is because I fought so dearly to bury it deep inside. Those memories of my childhood are hard for me to think about, but the skills I gained from those horrific experiences have been useful to me as I moved through life. Becoming invisible, and learning to hide are skills that I have been able to return to many times in order to guarantee my survival.
The thing about living in an abusive environment is that you can never rest; if you let your guard down for even an instant, it can come back to bite you. When I came home in the evenings I would approach the cabin slowly, hoping that Jim would be asleep. Some days I was lucky, but luck isn’t something to be counted on. One unlucky night, as I came upon the back door, I heard him moving around followed by a terrible screeching sound. Turning the corner, I registered that Jim had my pet opossum in his hands. While opossums aren’t typical house pets, we had to make due with the animals that lived around us. This opossum wasn’t afraid of me and he would sometimes follow me around in the evenings close to home. That night, Jim seemed to be waiting for me to come home and maybe if I had been there he would have let that opossum live. Jim told me stand against the back wall of the cabin facing the woods. He took the opossum over to the tree where I picked my switches and proceeded to nail the opossum to the trunk. He made me watch as he skinned the opossum alive, my only friend in the woods.
I made conscious choices to make friends away from home, but it was hard because I never wanted anyone to know where I came from and how little we had. Finally, I found one place where you did not need much money to play or fit in, and it was on the dunes on the side of the roads. Local kids would take anything they could get their hands on and play “trucker” by rolling their toy trucks up and down the large brown dirt piles on the side of the road. I would go sit and watch the kids play most days since I did not have a truck of my own. I can’t remember if I got the truck for my birthday or Christmas, or maybe even just because somebody had a bit of extra cash. Whatever the case, I got a truck of my own. A 25-cent plastic truck with wheels that did not spin, but they were wheels nonetheless. The very next day, I woke early, excited to take my truck down to the dunes. Finally, I was going to be able to play. I rolled my truck up to the top of the dune and started to make my first pass when one of the older kids snatched it out of my hands.
“Give that back!” I shouted at him, but he just kept on going running.
At the top of hill, he placed my truck, at the end of a line of similarly pitiful excuses for toy trucks. There were other smaller kids gathered around whining for the big boys to give their toys back. I watched as he pulled out his BB gun and began firing away. He shot all of the trucks including mine full of hundreds of tiny holes. He laughed as he threw the remains back to their distraught owners.
Crushed, I grabbed my truck and ran home. For the life of me, I cannot figure out why I thought that would be a good solution to the problem. I ran through the front door crying as I came in. My mother was home, despite the fact that it was the middle of the day and she should have been at work. She asked me what happened and I told her all about the boys with the BB guns and what they had done to my truck. She listened and I could see the fury rising up in her eyes.
Within the span of five minutes my mother had dressed me in one of my cousins’ dresses. She marched me, dressed like a girl, down to the dunes where all the other boys were still playing. If I had thought she was going to help me in a normal maternal sort of a way, I had thought wrong.
“Which one of you turned my boy into a sissy, crying baby?” Cecile shouted.
The boys took one look at her and they all took off running before she could get to them. Their fear of her wasn’t enough to keep them from laughing at me on their way by or of reminding me of the incident every time I went down to the dunes. Eventually, I stopped going there too.
John Herbert had not been around in a few years, but apparently one of his usual routes changed, and brought him through the woods. It must’ve occurred to him that he had an estranged wife and son so John drove over to our cabin and found me home alone. Rather than wait for my mother to come home, John Herbert decided to pull me up into the front seat of his rig and set off to make his regular round of deliveries. The feeling of seeing my Dad pull into the area in front of the cabin, was a strange mix of emotions. While I was happy to see him, life had taught me to be wary of adults, especially ones I was related to.
That week I got to see the country, from the front seat of my Dad’s big rig. I practiced being invisible, if I could just keep from bothering him maybe he would let me stay, and I could have my ticket out of the woods. I felt an odd sort of pressure, that if I behaved a certain way, I could convince my Dad that my mother and I were worth saving. On the second night of my trip, my father was talking to some of his other trucking buddies while we were all stopped for a bit of a break at a diner. And me, I had developed a lot of questions in my time away from home.
“How far can the truck go?” I asked excitedly.
“How fast have you driven it, have you ever been in a race?”
“Dad, why is the front red and the back silver, did you have to paint it yourself?” I wondered aloud, walking the length of the truck.
As I got closer to my Dad, he finally seemed to hear my questions and looked down at me. As I opened my mouth again, he picked me up and tossed me to the side.
“Christ, shut up already,” he laughed to his buddies.
I landed hard on my chin and the impact drove my eyetooth far up into my gums, where it would stay for years. Not that I had much to smile about before, but that was when I began to make sure my teeth were covered whenever I had to crack a smile for a picture. One more thing for me to be ashamed about. Overall, I must have been too much trouble for him too because he dropped me back off at my mother’s house a week later. I did get a pretty good ass-kicking out of it, which I’m sure I deserved since my mother had been so close to being rid of me and I’d blown it.