I was one of the smallest kids in my class, third grade at Granville Elementary. On top of that, I was painfully shy because we had just moved to a new neighborhood and new school. I didn’t fit into the already established male hierarchy that is established early on. You know, the biggest bully in class dominates by beating up all the other kids. Then the next biggest bully beats up everybody except the biggest bully. There is usually one kid that everybody can beat up, usually a smaller less aggressive kid. That kid, before I arrived was Gene. Gene was a small skinny kid, and he was so happy to see me, because now he had somebody smaller and skinnier that would take the bullies’ attention away from him. The bullies in my class would hit me because they knew I wouldn’t fight back. To hit back meant even more fists slammed into me, so I didn’t fight back. And perhaps, I’m not sure because that happened over 60 years ago, but perhaps a wee small voice said, hitting others was a bad thing. I do feel that way now, but did I way back then?
Now on top of that, I was a terrible team athlete and was always the last guy picked for any team sport. I guess that getting beat up often, and being a lousy athlete didn’t help my self image, so I did poorly academically as well. Now, all these social disadvantages should have influenced my cognitive development as well as my moral code. But compared to what I’m about to tell you, those things were trifling. Here’s the real killer of confidence, the real destroyer of self image, the real maker of dangerous minds, sociopaths. My momma made me wear knickers — yes, knickers, and I was the only kid in school who wore knickers. Kids wore them in the ’20s, but not in the ’50s. I wonder, what she was thinking. I am sure it saddled me with life long psychological baggage. Probably put the world around me a little more at risk.
Yes, that’s me, second from the right, front row. I was 9, in third grade. There I am short, skinny, untalented, and my momma dressed me funny.
Recently I began to wonder how many people forced to wear knickers as a child turned out badly. I did a little research and turned up the following people that wore knickers. Clyde Barrow of Bonnie and Clyde, and Benito Mussolini, you know Hitler’s good friend that led Italy into chaos in WWII. Every photo I found of Billy the Kid shows his trousers tucked inside his cowboy boots. I’m betting they were tucked in those boots to hide the fact that he wore knickers.
So how did I manage to not become a mass murderer, or bank robber? Why did I never make it into a criminal line-up? Simple, it was very good parenting, even if mom did dress me funny. I learned right from wrong, and in the ’50s, when I forgot right and did wrong, I did get punished. As a young adult, I often lamented the fact that dad was not around as often as I wished. Why? I wondered, didn’t he teach me how to play baseball, or at least teach me how to defend myself, or give me a hug occasionally. But I later learned that his generation had endured the depression as children, when having food was not a certainty. Then barely out of their teens, they had to fight in WWII. Many of their cousins, brothers and friends never came back from that war. They couldn’t take time for the warm, fuzzy, feely stuff. Life was very scary, and there was a very difficult job that had to be done.
My father never thought of himself as such, but he was an excellent teacher; ironically much of what he taught me came long after his death. And, he continues to teach me today. Remembering things he did 40 years ago, that made no sense to me then, now makes perfect sense. It was years after his death that I learned from mom that his company lost a lot of money during my freshman year in college, and he struggled to pay my tuition. He never mentioned that to me, he didn’t want to upset me. Lesson learned.
I personally watched my father as he was equally open and at ease with the guy fixing the flat tire on his car, as he was with the CEO of the biggest bank in NC. It made no difference; he treated them both well and with respect. And usually with a lot of humor, he laughed a lot. Lesson learned.
Perhaps the most important lesson he taught me was how very valuable our time here is, he taught me that the last time I saw him. By then I was 41 and we worked together and we were a team, a very good team. He had started a very successful company and I was his number two guy. That last day we talked was a happy day, we had had a good year and he told me the following.
“I’ve worked hard all my life and now I’m going to start taking a lot more vacation, I deserve it.” But he didn’t get it. We had that conversation on Saturday morning, and three days later he had a major heart attack and didn’t survive. He had waited too late. Lesson learned.
So, I’ve concluded that even if I had to wear knickers, never learned team sports, was academically a late bloomer, my dad taught me how to be a decent man. Like all of us, he made mistakes, but he was a decent man and simply observing how he lived, taught me most of what I needed to know. Not a month goes by that I do not remember some act of his that said he cared, even if he could not articulate “feelings,” they were there, and in abundance. He was my best teacher.
Rod Hunter lives in East Bend and is an avid hiker, biker, photographer and nature lover. He is the past state chairman of the Sierra Club of NC. He volunteers as a court appointed children’s advocate for children in foster care and with Cancer Services Inc. He is a two-time cancer survivor. He has backpacked in Alaska, Arizona, California, Utah, Oregon, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Georgia, Virginia, and of course North Carolina.