The Shameful Truth
This is a story about conscience.
I can’t really say whether I had just turned four or was closer to age five, I just remember distinctly that I was four years old. The day started out as any other day. I can almost see that moment now, like I’m watching a video replay. It was a weekend day and I was at the next door neighbor’s house, playing with a couple of childhood pals, Dwayne and John. Dwayne was my age and John was a year older. We were playing in the second story of a fairly new wooden playhouse built for my chums by their father Dewey. It was the most awe inspiring thing on the block, to a four-year-old boy anyway. I can’t remember specifically what we were doing and I vaguely recall the moments that led up to the horrible event, but I vividly remember that fateful moment and the events that unfolded afterwards. An instant in time frozen into my brain, a terrible memory that constantly reminds me of the day I was ripped from my protective womb of innocence and serenity. Other than being raped or kidnapped, I don’t believe that there is a tragedy that could be any more impactful or frightening to one so young, as was the events that took place that disastrous afternoon.
“Dwayne, John,” exclaimed a voice from inside the house.
The distinctly female voice continued “please come down from your fort, I need to go to the store and I can’t leave you here alone.” Of course I recognized the voice as that of the boys’ mother, a fairly fit and youthful looking lady. She was, I’m guessing, in her late 20’s at the time. The boys climbed down from the fort and hopped into the family station wagon where their mom was now poised behind the steering wheel. I can still picture that Ford Falcon with its huge white fins. Each fin contained three red taillights, increasing in size from top to bottom, like a snow cone, and protruded outward from the rear of each fin.
About a half an hour or so before going next door to play and prior to the “big event,” I was in the kitchen at my house. We had a babysitter that day, when I say we, I mean my 2-and-a-half-year-old brother Tom and I. My folks had their own business, a weekly newspaper called the Riverside County Record and so my mom worked a lot. During my early years I didn’t always get to see my dad very often either as their business was pretty much a two-person operation. For whatever reason the babysitter was nowhere to be found - a perfect opportunity for a boy of four to fetch an item of curiosity that had been beckoning my attention for quite some time now. An item that so peaked my curiosity that I had been planning for this very moment long before it actually arrived. And now, that moment of opportunity was upon me.
My heart kicked into overdrive, flowing blood through my veins like a river whose dam had burst following a torrential downpour. It was also a moment of giddiness like none I had ever experienced before. Quickly, excitedly, I climbed up onto the counter top and opened the cabinet door, which had a slight creaking sound to it. I reached for the “special” jar, thee jar I had ogled so often from afar, dreaming of acquiring its magical contents. The very same jar I had seen my dad take from the cabinet so many times. I used to eye him ever so closely as he’d spin open the lid, and then peer intently as he extracted his own set of neatly arranged goodies, standing like soldiers all in a row. I could feel the overwhelming sense of panic and anxiety as I violated the sanctity of my dad’s domain. A place, things, that were meant only for dad - all others beware the consequences. I just couldn’t help myself. The thirst to satisfy my curiosity kept driving me on. Without any hesitation, into the glass encased vault I thrust my left hand, which by now was shaking considerably. Into the jar it went and in seconds I had retrieved my prize. A sense of wrongness pulsed from every cell in my body as I completed the unnerving deed. Then, with my coveted prize in hand, I bolted off to the neighbor’s house.
“Sally, I’m going next door to the Beasley’s for a while, see ya later!” I yelled as I rushed out of the house, not knowing, or even caring, if the babysitter had heard me. I had only one thing on my mind at that point - get next door to my friends’ house with my heisted treasure. From then until the boys’ mom called them to leave and go shopping with her, the interim events are mostly a blur. After the neighbor kids had left the playhouse and climbed into their mom’s trusty automobile, I, from a little 1’ X 1’ window cut into the wall on the top floor of the neighbor’s playhouse, ever so sneakily peered out towards the driveway, and watched as they all pulled out and headed off to the store.
“Wow, look at me, I’m now king of the castle,” I thought to myself, and all alone! What a perfect time to do some experimenting with my new found toy. A toy it was not, but for me they seemed like something that would be fun to play with; rather like pulling the legs off of a live cockroach. I was a pretty bright four-year-old so I took a minute to plan out the next few seconds, seconds that would rudely and abruptly introduce me to the realities of my ignorance.
Being sharp as a tack, I thought to myself, “let’s see, this playhouse is made of wood. If I want to play with these matches I can’t light them on the wooden floor, because it might catch the playhouse on fire.” In my infinite wisdom, I concluded that the best solution, the best way for me to be able to play with these mesmerizing glowing embers would be to light a match, and then, as it burned down towards my fingers, I figured I’d just toss it into a nearby cardboard box – so as not to catch the playhouse on fire. As it turned out, if that was the only damage I induced, I would have been lucky.
If it only had been the playhouse that burned that day, I might now hardly remember it. However, after realizing that the matches I had been tossing, without concern, into the cardboard box, had now grown into somewhat of a blaze, I continued to use my stellar intellect and quickly scampered down the stairwell of the playhouse with the box in tow. As I headed down to the safety of the concrete carport below those quick movements must have fueled the flames even more as I now realize that the entire box is almost engulfed in flames and my hands and arms are about to be burned. Frantically, I tossed the box into the dirt breezeway between the concrete and the porch because I knew dirt didn’t burn. Unfortunately for me, and the neighbor’s parents who owned the home, the box slid across the dirt breezeway and up against the outside of the living room wall.
Even to this day I can still recall just a glimpse of that moment, a single solitary image now seared in my memory. There I was, a four-year-old boy with a box of flames blazing out of control like a freshly stoked camp fire. I bolted through the breezeway towards my house hoping to warn someone that there might be a problem here. My flight was also an attempt to skirt detection of having been the cause of what was quickly blossoming into a catastrophic event. I’m not sure if that was the scariest moment of my life, shaking me down right to the very core of my soul, or, if it was being interrogated by the Riverside Fire Chief when the fire department showed up to put out the fire after the neighbors’ house was half burned to the ground.
I see those few scenes over and over again. There I am running away from an out of control fire, yelling for the babysitter to call the fire department because I “had a feeling” that the next door neighbors’ house might be on fire. What transpired from then on was a sequence of repeated interrogations by the fire chief as to what I might possibly know about this fire. I continually denied having any knowledge of what had taken place. I even made attempts at misdirection by telling tales of seeing other neighbor kids fleeing from the scene only moments before the fire. Each time the Fire Chief would return and ask “Are you sure you don’t know how this fire got started?”
I make no excuses for my behavior, except to say that I was one scared kid who could only imagine the most painful of consequences that awaited me if I were to admit to my guilt. I never did give into the Fire Chief and come clean, and maybe that is why that moment has stuck with me for so long. My intuition tells me that it might be the unexpected mental consequences of having tried to cover my ass. I certainly did not go without suffering the physical consequences. Apparently the real reason the Fire Chief didn’t pursue breaking down my testimony any more than he did was that at one point while taking a break from interrogating me he must have called my father, and my father must have convinced the Fire Chief that he would apply the punishment to his son - without prejudice. When my dad got home from work that night, I got the spanking of my life. It was a pant down, bare skinned, spanking with my dad using his thinnest of his leather belts.
I don’t bear any physical scars from that event, I wasn’t burned and my dad’s belt left no lasting marks. But the guilt feelings that came from the lying and the damage I had done, from acting in a manner that was so much in opposition to my sense of self-worth and the morals I value, have left me with a continued sense of apprehension and even a bit of performance anxiety. Even though I’ve tried, I never really could hide, from this shameful truth.