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Chop Suey
Image Source: The Daily

“I am FINISHED with this! Do NOT call on me again!”

Hilda Beauregard’s words exploded through the slop house as she stormed away from the table, leaving Harvey Navin alone and mortified. He could feel her words clench and pierce his heart, like a vice grip with talons. He could feel every damn eye in the joint boring in on him, and he could hear the snickers and titters, and the fumbling of silverware and plates as some diners relished the scene like a bullfight and others wished they could be somewhere – ANYwhere – else, away from such an embarrassing moment.

Harvey felt himself turn a blazing red, desperate to say something – ANYthing – to defend himself and deflect the bore of a room full of eyes penetrating his broken soul. But all he could do was sputter, “she had to catch a jet airplane!” and cackle like a witch. He knew that this awful line just made it worse, so he immediately clapped his hands and yelled, “Waiter! A menu, please!” Never mind that there were two plates of half-eaten Chop Suey on the table. A waiter brought a menu over, and Harvey buried his face in it.

So this is it. Dumped like a hot anvil in a lousy dime-store Chinatown slop house. Nice going, chump!

Harvey stirred the noodles around on his plate. He fought like hell to hold back, but a tear escaped his welled-up eye and ran slowly down his cheek, like a rivulet of rain through a sand dune.

Well, old pal, you haven’t amounted to much, have you? You weren’t much of a student. You weren’t much of a soldier. You aren’t much of a salesman. And now you’ve gone and spooked off your best gal. A fine job you’ve done! And look at you, sobbing in front of the world like a coward! No wonder you’re such a bum!”

Harvey made a mountain of Chop Suey with the fork in his right hand while he fingered the bead in his left hand.

He was an average student at best in high school, always shy and awkward, and he welcomed the chance to drop out. At 17, in May, 1943, Harvey lied about his age and enlisted. He was shipped off to boot camp, and soon found out that his new world wasn’t much better than his old world.

Harvey Navin was never going to be an All-American at anything. He played no sports in school, and he often struggled in boot camp, wilting under the barking commands of his drill sergeant. His fellow enlistees never let him forget it when his clumsiness cost them extra laps. Harvey was part of a battalion that helped capture the Reichstag, but that glory paled in comparison to all the death and dismemberment he had seen. He was never able to put the carnage of war behind him.

After he came home from the war, Harvey flopped around for a bit, finally landing a job as a salesman for an appliance company. But the war stayed with him, and he never really got his confidence back, not that he had any confidence anyway. Harvey tried to be positive in every meeting, but he often found himself distracted, suddenly remembering a past embarrassment: the time he mispronounced a word in class; the time he tripped on a log while running an obstacle course; the time he almost fell off the deck of his ship halfway across the Atlantic. Sometimes he remembered the war: the stench of death; the shrapnel-mangled bodies lying in the mud; the spray of blood as a battalion-mate’s head exploded from artillery fire right before his eyes.

Once the embarrassing memory came, Harvey felt all the eyes in the world pierce his broken soul and heard the snickers and titters all over again. Once the war memory came, he felt his heartbeat race and his breathing get heavy. Once the memory came, it was all over: Harvey started stammering and sweating, and his sales pitch fell apart. He felt the pressure and half expected every day at the office to be his last. His boss, Mr. Greenberg, gave as many chances as he could, but Harvey could feel his time running out.

Harvey was surprised to find that he was fingering the bead as he sat at the table, and even more surprised that it was out of its ampoule. The bead. That’s what his battalion called the cyanide pills given to German soldiers in case of capture and torture. One bite and it was all over. Himmler and Göring both went out on a one-course cyanide dinner, in fact. Harvey’s battalion killed several high-level German soldiers, all of whom had the pills on their person, and they all pocketed the beads. It was their little souvenir from the Fall of the Third Reich.

Harvey sat at the table, fingering the bead in his trembling left hand, thinking of all he had been through in his short life and thinking of the way Hilda had just destroyed him.

Gee-whiz, I was just trying to be sweet. Who knew she would get so sore like that? Boy, a fella gets a little nervous and says a few things not quite right and…

“Daddy, you MISSED it! She said she was FINISHED with this an’ told him not to call on her again! An’ then she WALKED OUT!”

The boy was pointing right at Harvey, and the father swatted his hand down. “Son, it’s not polite to point and say things like that” he said.

But it was too late. Once again, every damn eye in that stinking slop house was boring in on the broken soul of Harvey Navin. Once again, he heard all the snickers and titters. Once again he felt every embarrassment he ever felt in his whole goddamn short life, and once again he felt all the horrors of the war, fresh and vivid like a never-ending nightmare.

Jesus…JESUS! GodDAMNit all, you lousy BUM!

Harvey sat at the table, feeling the tears pour, feeling his heartbeat race, struggling to breathe. Trembling and sweating, he tried to take sip of ice water, but the water spilled all over his chin and shirtfront and lap.

GodDAMNit!

He scanned the restaurant and caught a woman look at him, then quickly turn away.

She thinks you’re a bum too!

He heard someone say, “gee, glad I’m not him.”

Yeah, and he thinks you’re a bum too!

The father of the boy who called him out quickly gathered his family and rushed them out.

And THEY all think you’re a bum! ALL OF THEM!!!

Harvey Navin sat alone at a corner table of a Chinatown slop house, crying, trembling uncontrollably, covered in ice water, broken. He thought of all he had been through in his short life: all the horror and death and humiliation; all the snickers and titters, like the soundtrack of his life; all the eyes of the world boring in on his broken soul. He saw it all play before his eyes, like a newsreel before the pictures.

And suddenly there was calm.

Suddenly Harvey felt calm and content. Suddenly a wave of tranquility washed over his soul and he went with it. For the first time in his whole goddamn short life Harvey felt confident. Finally happy. Just for a moment, but it was just enough. He managed to place the bead on his mountain of Chop Suey and took a bite, finally at peace now that the war was, at long last, over.

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(Watching out for the next attack)

Right away I didn’t fit in. As we’ve seen, immediately upon my arrival from Florida at age 14 I was marked as a weirdo, a perfect target. And the trauma began immediately.

Once my new chums discovered that I was nervous and jumpy, the Hot Ass became a go-to trick. The Hot Ass was a pithy variation of the Hotfoot, wherein the perp held a lighter under my plastic chair until I would jump out of said chair, shrieking in agony and, hopefully, tossing my books and pen around the room. This was especially popular during tests, when my bewildering antics would make me the focus of the quiet room. Often my perp – usually Mike Welch – would say something snarky about my causing a disturbance as the eyes of the class bored into me and their howls of laughter carved into my soul.

Because my toes turn in (“Just like Jackie Robinson!” I would say to the great amusement of my chums, who couldn’t have given less of a shit about Jackie Robinson), they said I ran like I had a brick shoved up my ass sideways, thus making gym class especially traumatic. I would usually skip class and run laps in the gym after school, then walk the four miles home. It was easier. Much less humiliating.

Remember the Cookie Monster anthem, “C is for Cookie, that’s good enough for me!” I was serenaded with my own personalized version! “W is for Westbye, that’s weird enough for me!”

But nothing would ever come close to the hell and agony of being known as Twacker.

In the long view, I love the fact that this incident occurred in the very same gym that inspired Carrie: at the time it was my own version. Freshman year at Lisbon Maine High School: I was standing at a urinal shaking off after using the urinal for its intended purpose just before gym class. Kevin Lerette came up behind me and jumped to the conclusion that would break me for the next two years.

“HE’S TWACKING OFF!!! HE’S TWACKING OFF!!!”

I knew in those first few nanoseconds that this was going to be a game-changer for the worst, but I couldn’t imagine how bad it actually would be. Word spread like so many proverbial wildfires (or Hot Asses), and I became known as Twacker, thus indirectly preceding Pee Wee Herman and Fred Willard on the path of infamy.

It stuck. In a quiet science class, my desk-mate Katie asked if anyone had any hand lotion. Mike Welch immediately piped up, “Why, is Westbye horny?!?” The memory of the entire class laughing and staring still burns under the scar tissue of time.

And so it went, and it didn’t stop until mid-way through my sophomore year.

It took me years, and years of therapy, to come to terms with the word “trauma.” I always blew it off. Trauma is what one experiences after seeing their entire family bludgeoned before their eyes, or after escaping a fiery plane crash. Not me! Not someone who just got picked on a little. But the more time I spent on the couch and analyzing myself, the more I realize that I was traumatized. There is no other word to describe the toll that was exacted on my psyche during those years.

I have come to terms with it all, and I am becoming okay with it. And I’ve had many last laughs over the years (Lori, our prom queen, is one of my best friends now, and she didn’t even remember Twacker. And I doubt that Mike Welch’s band has sold out the House of Blues Boston on a Tuesday night.).

Still, trauma runs deep, and it will take many more years, if ever, before I can undo that level of damage…

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Step right up, son! Image Source: Jacksonville Business Journal

This week I will be returning to northern Florida for the first time since September 12, 1986, my 14th birthday and the day we moved back home to Maine. What do I remember over the last quarter century? What is going through my mind? Let’s find out…

In 1984, in Jacksonville, FL, USA, I was bussed. After two years at Beauclerc Elementary, which was in my neighborhood, I was bussed completely across Jacksonville, largest city in the country in terms of square mileage, to a predominantly black school in a predominantly black neighborhood.

I walked into this situation without a hint of prejudice, and today I tell the tale without a hint of prejudice. Race has nothing to do with my thoughts then or now, and if I bandy about keywords that are racially charged in 2012, well, that was just what we knew in 1984.

But Goddamn, it was a weird situation.

I mean, bussing happened in Boston in the ‘70s, right? We were over that shit by ’84, right?

I’m not sure why I was bussed. Maybe some pencil-pusher in the Duval County School District dropped a cigarette ash on a demographic report and missed a figure. Maybe they just threw a dart or played eenie-meenie. Who knows how bureaucracy really works? But so it was determined that I would be bussed, 45 minutes each way, for sixth grade.

I was joined by a few friends from Beauclerc, so I had some solidarity. And the bus ride, if long, was pleasurable. The driver always played the radio loud, so my commute was filled with Chaka Khan’s “I Feel For You” and Diana Ross’s “I’m Missing You” and Don Henley’s “Sunset Grill” and U.T.F.O.’s “The Real Roxanne” (yes, it was played on commercial radio).

Crossing the Mathews Bridge and taking the Arlington Expressway meant plenty of bumps, and I always sat in the back hoping to hit the ceiling. I think it actually happened once, although I don’t quite remember (maybe there is a correlation here).

And when we finally arrived, the school had its moments. I remember getting together an air-band performance of Def Leppard’s “Rock of Ages” for a talent show. I had warning track power at recess, and I pulled off a few nifty doubles. And at some point the school day ended every day.

But I remember “my man” Cedric and my “friend” Chad most.

I often “loaned” Cedric my lunch money, and once loaned him my new Casio computer watch. I would get that one back in pieces and – you won’t believe this – I would never get my lunch loans back. But Cedric had a way of smoothing things over. “We tight!” he would say, and I would believe it. “You mah man!” Cedric would tell me, and I’d buy it. I heard him call me a “dumbass honky motherfucker” behind my back a few times, but no matter: we tight! Right?

Chad was a pure St. John’s River redneck, well-versed in Hank Jr. and Charlie Daniels lyrics and the content of Guns & Ammo and Field & Stream. We were never all that tight, and even less so after the day he produced a pair of handcuffs on the bus, hooked my right arm up to a seat and punched me until my arm was completely numb and lifeless. Why did he do that? Who the hell knows. The bus driver actually saw this attack and let Chad off the bus early – somewhere in ghetto downtown Jacksonville. I have no idea what happened to him from there, but the way my arm was feeling, I didn’t much care.

1984 was the year of George Orwell, Reagan’s trouncing of Mondale, Ethiopian famine, Maine Girl Joan Benoit ruling the LA Olympics, Bhopal, Bernie Goetz, the launch of the CD player, Ghostbusters, Beverly Hills Cop, The Karate Kid, the last Van Halen album, the rise of Mötley Crüe and hints and intimations from major underground bands such as The Dead Kennedys and R.E.M. It was also the year I was bussed, and the year I really learned all about what it meant to trust another human, no matter their color.

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