An 8-year-old child of divorce, Thom wanted approval from his Scoutmaster. Instead, he was preyed on. Fifty years later, the effects of the abuse still loom large.
In the world of little boys, the true heroes are the rescuers. From fictional superheroes to local firemen, well-trained soldiers to clumsy dads, the men we admire are the ones who have the answers to the problems that threaten the world. We want men to be men and come to the rescue. And we believe they will.
But not all rescues are welcome.
In 1962, with the disintegration of our family and the departure of my dad, the world in which I lived desperately needed someone to come to its rescue. Our house on Texas Street was still familiar; the yard was the same; the trains just as loud and wall-rattling as they clipped the yard on their way to somewhere … somewhere else. But it was the unfamiliar quiet which cried out. There was no longer a creak from the living room chair; no sound of beer cans opening, no glow of my father’s cigarette from the backyard where he would have stood to scan the night sky. No hearty laughs.
He left, which is what I wanted to do—walk away from the bagworm-infested trees and the heat of the summer. I was ready to wander away from the pain and confusion but had nowhere to go.
I loved that old house, though it held its fears. I loved it when our family would sit around the table in the dining room with bowls of pinto beans and cornbread and sour pickles and great glasses of sweet iced tea. I loved the time Daddy brought home a pet skunk. It had the run of the house, but usually just hid in the hall closet and dashed out only to taunt my mother and provoke an argument about the absurdity of a rodent rummaging among our Sunday clothes.
The fear? It was the attic opening above the hallway between the dining room and the kitchen, slightly askew as if it were frequently used by someone living up there that came out only in the dark, perhaps to itself rummage the closet in my bedroom or slide beneath my bed. When I would be sent to the kitchen to refill the tea pitcher or bring more bread, I would skirt along the wall and keep an eye on that opening.
When I look back now, I am comforted to know that as a 7-year-old, my fears were so benign and common: dark and empty attics, monsters under beds. That would end at the age of 8, to be replaced by fears that moved inside of me to produce a different darkness.
“Rescue” came in 1962.
For the first few years after my parents’ divorce, the Continental Trailways bus between Denton and Fort Worth was the connection between my dad and his children. Sometimes Daddy would take the bus to Denton for a day in the park; sometimes all four of us children would board the bus for the trip to Fort Worth for a walk in the zoo and an evening of biscuits and pinto beans in Daddy’s little apartment.
The bus was loud and smelly and the people, despite the fact they were on a bus headed to some specific designation, looked lost and wandering and self-absorbed, which is how I felt. Though we would laugh and share the inner jokes of siblings, pestering the passengers, exhausting the good will of the driver, the bus became a symbol for never being home, but just somewhere in between.
Within a year of the divorce, the bus trips became less frequent. Daddy was often broke and unable to afford the ticket to come see us, or the four children’s fares for us to go see him. We began to find other ways to spend our Saturdays. Movie matinées and Milk Duds, swimming with cousins on my mother’s side, cashing in coke bottles for comic books to curl up in a world of conquering heroes.
Home still echoed an aching emptiness I was sure would never go away. Everything was a reminder. The space in the driveway where Daddy used to park his car. The disappearance of the ash trays in the living room. No vienna sausages in the pantry. No snoring at night; no red flickering of his cigarettes in the darkened living room where he would wander to try to figure things out. No weekend fishing trips to Bridgeport. No skunk. No one to chase away the monsters or straighten the tilting attic door. We soon moved and Texas Street moved into memory.
Mother worked hard to fill the emptiness, loading us up to go to drive-in movies at night, putting together picnics on the weekend, bringing home a new puppy. Still, she knew my brother Mike and I needed the influence of men in the absence of our father. We were too cooped up with sisters, and my brother—five years older than I—was already beginning to find his own way out into a more adventuresome world.
When Mike came home with the news that a bunch of the boys in the neighborhood were being rounded up to start a new scout troop, Mother was all for it. A young, clean-cut outdoorsman and self-proclaimed scoutmaster, Mr. Hooten, had been showing off his collection of hatchets and knives, outdoor gadgets and camping gear. He had a way with words and weapons. Like all the boys, we were hooked. Mr. Hooten was going to build the sharpest Scout troop in Texas and every boy in the neighborhood was welcome to join and march in formation into manhood. I was, of course, way too young.
I took to Mr. Hooten right off. He reminded me of all the good things about Daddy. Mr. Hooten decided I could join the troop—unofficially—even though I was only 8, several years too young. He promised Mother he would watch out for me; he promised my brother he would not let me be too big a pest. And he promised me he’d “protect” me from the older boys, just in case any of them might be bullies. I was parading in the personal attention. I was finally someone’s favorite, and I was anxious to learn all the things Mr. Hooten could teach me.
Mr. Hooten was a pedophile. Sick and sly, he knew how to take a little boy’s grin of anticipation and turn it for his personal satisfaction. He “protected” me as anyone would valuable personal property. I was not a member of the troop; I was his.
The sexual abuse began innocently enough, creeping in like a welcome sunrise on a clear morning that gives no hint of the storms to come in the heating of the day. If sin announced itself, like the first incoming missile of an air war, we could duck and run for cover. It doesn’t happen that way. Sin slides in.
Mr. Hooten’s favorite activity was movie night. He would order movies boys love—westerns and war movies and hokie horror flicks—and we’d all crowd into the community room he’d borrow from the city. Movie night was a reward for the hard work of memorizing oaths and carving pinewood derby cars. There, in the dark, perhaps 30 young teenage boys and a little brother or two would sprawl on the floor and become enthralled in the adventures on the screen. There, in the dark, Mr. Hooten became enthralled with me. I didn’t mind. I admired him; he cared about me. Sitting closely in front of him in the crowded room, I welcomed his arm around me as he would pull me back towards him and slide me down so I would be comfortable and he could see above my burr-cut head. I didn’t mind the backrub, the slow movements of his strong hands along my spine. It didn’t seem wrong when he reached around in front and rubbed my chest and stomach and pulled me closer. There, in the dark, with all my friends around, it didn’t even seem strange when he fondled me through my jeans, or even when he began to reach inside, never taking his eyes off the screen. He was, after all, Mr. Hooten. It couldn’t be wrong. He even called me Tom-Bo, the nickname my Dad had given me. I began to live for Friday nights.
My daddy had taken our family on a few campouts when I was a little boy. He’d even driven us all the way out to Yellowstone National Park where we slept in a tent and listened for bears and took hikes and identified berries and skipped rocks on streams. I missed those days, so I was very excited when Mr. Hooten said our troop was going to camp—and I could go along. He assured my mother I’d be safe. In fact, he said, I could sleep in his tent to make sure the older boys played no late night pranks on me.
When I was with Mr. Hooten, I felt loved and accepted and singled out. He knew that. I was so easily taken in by him. I anticipated the camping trip with more excitement than any Christmas. I packed my things weeks ahead, complaining incessantly to my mother that I needed a sleeping bag we couldn’t afford. Mr. Hooten told me not to worry about it; he had one for me. He would take care of everything.
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