The Sons of Thunder
There were early warning signs that violence was on the way. The two boys were untamed, unfettered, and usually unsupervised. Their mother had disappeared mysteriously, leaving her husband alone with three children. The father refused any help from the community, insisting that the family would work out their own problems. Alicia, the beautiful eldest child, reportedly kept the house running smoothly. She and the boys, James and John, were always clean, fed, and well dressed. Their father, known to drink a bit but not to excess, paid the bills and saved money. Although the father was gone frequently and sometimes for long periods of time there wasn’t anything specifically anyone could point a finger at, yet we all knew there was danger lurking behind the façade.
Alicia never went on dates, although at sixteen she caught the eye of every eligible male in the surrounding areas. Frankly, they were afraid to ask her out. Her dad made it a point to seek out prospective suitors and let them know their lives were in danger around his house or around his daughter. Alicia meekly followed orders, kept the house immaculate, and maintained her straight A average in high school.
John, the middle child, had an explosive temper that occurred with increasing frequency. Often I would confront him in school about some infraction and his face would become contorted with rage. His voice would shake and obscenities would pour out. Sometimes I asked him to walk around the schoolyard in an effort to cool his anger. I would watch him pick up a stick, point it at me, and pretend to shoot. Since I knew he hunted the fields around the school and around my house it was reason for concern. I knew he would seethe for hours until his anger finally abated. John was also very intelligent. He did well in his school subjects and also stayed informed about world politics. He had great plans for his future but I worried about his bouts of anger and how that anger controlled him at times.
John and James were unwelcome in neighboring homes because of their destructive hunting forays and their penchant for breaking things just for fun. One day they followed their dog down the road and into the driveway of a neighbor’s house. The dog chased chickens while the boys whooped their support. Finally the neighbor stepped out of his house. “You boys go home. I don’t want anything killing my chickens.” The boys didn’t listen. Instead they entered the barn and began breaking windows while the dog continued his relentless pursuit of squawking chickens. The neighbor stepped out of his house onto his front porch, holding a shot-gun. “Please take your dog home. He doesn’t belong here. You go home, too!” “I don’t want anyone to get hurt.”
The boys left, only to return a short time later with their dad. He had two six shooters strapped to his sides, gunfighter style. He confronted the neighbor. “If you want to have a shoot-out, then let’s get to it.” The neighbor backed down, uneasy about an altercation with a crazy man. And so it went, from that moment the community shied away from any arguments with the dad.
The family business was another strange thing that was rarely discussed. The dad made caskets. The boys often bragged about their personal coffins, made from the finest materials and ready to be used. “You should see the polished wood and the blue silk.” “When I die, dad will make mine even better,” the other replied.
James was known for his antics, his infectious smile, and his sudden angelic appearance. He could be deeply in trouble and yet somehow escape unscathed. Once, as a fifth grader, he had been caught peeping over a stall in the girl’s bathroom. He received no punishment because he was so sorry it had ever happened.
One day in spring, after the fire at Christmas had burned the school totally, and we were in school at the church, a strange thing happened. On this rare day James was sitting quietly in class trying to decipher the big words. The teacher, however, could not focus on the lesson. “I’m sorry,” she said, “but there’s something that really stinks around here.” She walked from chair to chair but to no avail. She eventually walked to the closet. “I think something died in there,” she announced to the class. She flung open the door and peered in, holding her nose. The children’s coats were hung on pegs, waiting to be picked up. The teacher went from coat to coat, sniffing and coughing. She stopped at James’s coat. “This coat stinks,” she said. “What is the problem?” James laughed. “I slept with my dog in the bed last night,” he proclaimed. “A skunk had sprayed it. My dog was still scared so I hugged it all night.”
James was the center of the universe at times. He could not read any words with more than four letters. The principal proudly proclaimed he taught James to read. Later, when James was discovered memorizing the lessons ahead, the principal was deflated and gave up. He turned the task over to a young teacher who decided James was a worthy project. For several weeks she toiled and James struggled onward. The reading project seemed a success until one day after school the woman turned her back on James. He quickly closed the distance between them, reached around and cupped her breasts. She was horrified and fled to the principal. “What are you going to do about it?” she demanded angrily. “You shouldn’t have been alone with him,” the principal snapped. The conversation was over. James and the reading lessons were over, but James continued on, oblivious to the fact that anything was wrong.
In the eighth grade and in high school James proved to be outstanding in sports. Grades were overlooked as long as James tried. There were occasions when those in the stands were pleasantly surprised by his adroit moves and quickness. There were also occasions when those same people were shocked by his ability to get confused. When he got turned around he might run the wrong way in football or make the winning basket for the wrong team in basketball. Yes, James was something of an enigma.
We didn’t hear much about Alicia after she graduated from high school. The boys said she went to college but we didn’t know where. And John? He graduated from high school and drifted northward, working one job after another. Later we heard he had been arrested in Seattle for armed robbery and would be locked away for awhile. And James? I had forgotten about James until one night at eleven o’clock I was awakened by the persistent ring of my phone. I picked it up and was greeted by a familiar voice. “Mr. Roberson, remember me? This is James and I just called to thank you for all you did for me. You didn’t give up and eventually you got me to reading. I’m now a lumberjack in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. I volunteer at a local elementary school when I can. I just wanted to thank you but I don’t want to keep you up. Good-bye!” And with that James was gone, but definitely not forgotten. He was one of the more difficult students who had learning disabilities and social problems and somehow had managed to rise out of the murky depths. He had taken the next step and was reaching out to others and giving them a chance to succeed. His persistence also woke me up.
Sometimes I forgot that school was more than teaching subject matter. It was about touching human lives. I slept easier that night and for many nights to follow because I had made a difference in his life. James didn’t give me a chance to tell him, but he also had made a difference in how I perceived things. I must have done something right, and to this day I still believe I can touch that invisible spirit, and bring it to a higher level. Thanks, James, wherever you are, for giving me feedback.
By Dan Roberson 2/26/09