This is the fourth excerpt of my book “Shattered Image” It is a book about childhood bullying and the effects it has on unhealthy self image and the choices we make to deal with it. For me those choices were eating disorders, alcoholism, drug addiction and a suicide attempt. Release date is tentative for June 2013.
“LOSING OUR HEROES”
Heroes can define a child’s self-image. Fame can, for better or worse, tell us what attributes we aspire to in our impressionable years. A fantasy buffer to the bullies, hard words and harsh reality of the outside world. Sinking the basket that wins a championship. Hitting the home run in the last at-bat to win the World Series. Such heroes had a profound impact on my fragmented self-image as I tried to find a realistic role model for the person I hoped I would grow up to be. I lacked any accurate kind of self-image that most people see on a day to day basis when they look in the mirror. I lacked the drive to excel in the real world. I saw myself as a lazy under-achiever of just above average IQ. I turned to my fantasy world and the solace of my bedroom where I could live my daydreams of heroic exploits, popularity, and ambition. Even if these heroic qualities existed only in my mind or in the darkness of my bedroom at night, I imported the passion for life that even a child understands and sees in others and envies.
Heroes can also form in the safety of home. The person I saw every day who kept me safe was also my hero. I recognized the heroic quality my father possessed as the hard worker who provided for his family. I really did not know what being a hard worker meant, but I knew my father took care of me. He cooked me his special chili made with Sloppy Joe Sauce, and he made me his special salads. He always made sure I had a car to drive. Some of the cars were always one step from the scrap heap, but they always ran. He told me everything was okay with a smile regardless of the daily mundane working toil of his life when I was overcome with the daily build-up of guilt and rejection. Even when I stole.
Summer 1971. I was embarrassed and guilt-ridden. I finally admitted I had been stealing change from his giant jar of quarters every day while he was at work. I had spent the money I had stolen on baseball cards. I thought the deed was worthy of expulsion from the family. I felt the kind of guilt that would burn into me and attach to every dishonest thing I would do in my life. He did not need to scold or discipline me. He knew how the overwhelming guilt affected me, and he knew I would not repeat the humiliating act. He only needed to hold me. He was my sense of fairness and safety– the only place I could find forgiveness for my misbehavior and the feelings that no one could touch me. No one would hurt me or call me names as long as my father was around. My father provided a warm blanket of confidence for me that let me know I could go to bed, assured he would also be there as that warm blanket another night after night. When I was eleven years old, I recognized in my father all the qualities I wanted for myself and that I wanted others to see in me. I just couldn’t figure out how to achieve it. Does any eleven year old know? In my mind, no one saw that potential in me. I needed a larger than life hero from whom I could absorb a self image worthy of my family and myself. I thought I had one.
Most of us can all remember where we were when various national tragedies or triumphs occurred. One such monumental event for many was the moment when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. For some it was when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Maybe it was the explosion of the Challenger. I remember where I was and how I felt that moment when I heard that my childhood sports idol, Roberto Clemente had gone into the sea. The memory is like a movie that can be replayed with no loss of signal even though years have gone by. Clemente was the star of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Clemente’s life was cut short by a plane crash that occurred en route to Nicaragua to help refugees from a devastating earthquake. I had followed his every at-bat, and I often felt as if I had been injured when he had. When he died, I cried the tears of a child with an already fragile self-image. My fragile self-image was a result of the harsh words my mother said to me as she felt helpless to change my inappropriate behavior. My self-esteem was also fragile from classmates who bullied me about my weight. Their insults ranged from verbal taunts to physical assaults. Because I never felt abused or bullied when I watched baseball, I understood the language of the game as building others up to be capable of heroic deeds. Roberto Clemente spoke more to me about the mighty game and the meaning of being a sports hero than anyone else in my young life. Clemente’s qualities as a baseball hero ran through my mind every night when I was in bed and I began to dream of an awkward young boy transformed into a baseball legend. Those dreams were shattered on New Year’s Eve1972. I lost my fantasy hero.
My parents had gone to a New Year’s Eve party. My grandfather Fred was babysitting me. I had stayed up watching TV late into the 1973 New Year morning. I watched It Grows on Trees. I remember being fascinated with the fantasy that money could grow on trees. A boy who had not yet really grasped the nature of the daily toil in life learned to provide for a family in much the same way as my father provided for my family. It was a revelation that a special type of paper bought me things that made me feel good. Money growing on trees seemed a simple solution to so many complex problems.
I also watched The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer. The movie made me sad and self-conscious. Long before the days of the Internet and the GQ image explosion, my views of how to be popular came from movies and the kids I saw every day. The Bachelor could get the young girl while I was too terrified to even look at one for fear of ridicule. The desirable girls fell for the guys in good shape who also possessed good looks. The high school prom king and queen. That’s how I envisioned it. I would never have hope of achieving that or even going to the prom. The scenario was not just a movie. It was my life. The next morning at the breakfast table my grandfather walked in as I was eating my cereal. In his guttural voice, ravaged from a stroke years before, he told me that Roberto Clemente had been killed in a plane crash overnight. I did not believe him. I rushed to the television and heard the news I would never forget. My baseball hero’s plane had gone down. I would hold out hope that he would be found alive. The hope of an innocent eleven-year-old who did not understand that it would be practically impossible for anyone to survive an airplane crash over the ocean wanted to believe his idol was not dead. I told myself
I glued myself to the television all day waiting for news of his rescue at sea. News that would never come. The news of my baseball hero’s death forced me out of my self-secluded world of baseball and heroes. People die. Heroes die. I felt that a part of me died.
The memory of learning of Clemente’s death left me so numb that I have not watched either of the two movies I watched on New Year’s Eve 1972, again. Both will be forever tied to the death of my childhood hero and the loss of something that gave me solitude from the bullying, fear of acceptance, and the image I saw of myself. I could no longer transpose the aura of Roberto Clemente onto that mirror and pretend I was the baseball legend. I would have to find new coping strategies, a foreign concept for an eleven-year-old boy. I retreated to the comfort of my dark room. I cried.