[Author’s Note: As part of the #BareYourMind campaign, this is a story of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Traumatic events suffered during childhood can result in long-term negative effects on mental and physical health. If you struggle with mental illness, I encourage you to share your stories as well. Let’s work together to de-stigmatize mental health in our society by giving it a human face.]
I remember burning skin being better than going into the house.
Thinking back to that long-gone summer Saturday, at a moment when I stood baking in the afternoon sun, for some reason the first thing I recall is the front steps of my childhood home. The blue paint was peeling away, revealing an older red layer beneath. My mind jumped to associate the colors with the American flag. How appropriate that seems to me now, years later. Because at the time, I was supposed to be at my most patriotic.
It was mid-August, 1990. Troops from the U.S. had just joined the war in the Persian Gulf. The country was rife with the urgent ire of American war-spirit. Inevitably, the fervor had seeped into the fabric of my scrap of a suburb, in the shadow of Philadelphia. The same chanting of “U.S.A! U.S.A!” heard over the airwaves would drift down the street now and then, shouted from throats made hoarse by cigarettes and beer, carried on the hot wind. The local morning radio shock jocks had even created a pro-war song parody set to the tune of Todd Rundgren’s “Bang the Drum All Day.” But instead of the drum, the shock jocks apparently wanted to bang on Saddam Hussein all day.
I’d seen the conflict footage on TV: our soldiers running across barren moonscape desert, tanks kicking up plumes of sand, and Hussein’s armies on the march. We were never allowed to forget that the Iraqis hated—and wanted to kill—every single one of us.
But what is a distant war to a kid with more immediate problems? I was getting ready for my own impending deployment to the unknown battlefield of high school. In just a few weeks, I’d be heading into new and probably dangerous territory. If my experiences in junior high had been any indicator, I was in for a long and difficult four-year tour of duty.
No, I wasn’t scared by the war in the Middle East. Because the Persian Gulf might as well have been Narnia, or Middle Earth, or some other fantasy realm even more distant. And anyway, I had more pressing concerns. I was dealing with a conflict of my own: an invasion of green peppers had entered my home the same week American boots had hit the dirt half a world away.
Green peppers. I hated the things. But like the Kuwaitis, I was unable to stop the assault.
My father was the leader of the pepper incursion. He’d brought in a force big enough to occupy the house for days. And they’d find their way into almost every meal, from our eggs at breakfast to our hamburgers at dinner. The burgers were the worst: they were infested with nasty little green pepper nodules that crunched in stark and disgusting contrast to the soft meat.
My disdain for the peppers was just another disappointment for my father. I imagined the scowl that would crease his face if he saw me right now, pouring with sweat.
As if showing me a moment of mercy, a fat cloud passed in front of the sun, and the stinging light was blunted for a while. My eyes moved up the steps of the house, slid over the warped wood of the porch, and came to rest on the screen door.
My father was lurking somewhere in there.
Continued in Part 2…
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