by Bruce Colbert
I sat very still in the living room watching the hazy screen of my grandmother’s old Motorola black and white television set that Saturday afternoon, watching Westerns, if I can remember correctly, or maybe it was the kid’s science show, Mister Wizard. I wore a blue Yankees baseball shirt, and jeans, both fresh from the clothesline in her tiny yard. It was a hot August, and I was eleven.
He stood over me like a tall ominous shadow. I could see his spit-shined black combat boots next to my outstretched hands, and then the Army jacket with its rows of colored battle ribbons on his chest, and the master sergeant stripes on his sleeve.
He had just gotten back from Korea, the armistice had been signed. At first, he didn’t say anything, just starred, and when I looked up into his eyes, they were cold, almost dead, bloodshot around the steel grey, so I looked down at the carpet, silent.
Then he laughed, and said, “You look like crap, soft belly, weak!” I was afraid to answer, so I didn’t, my head down, rubbing my small hands nervously up and down my outstretched legs. I didn’t know what to say, and pretended nothing had been said. I could see my grandmother silhouetted in the kitchen doorway, hair tied in a bun, rubbing her hands too on her apron, and looking at the two of us, fearful.
“That’s gonna change, right now,” this man, my father, said to me, and he reached down and grabbed a massive fist full of shirt, dragging me half standing through the dining room, to the side kitchen door. My grandmother remained speechless as we passed her, moving her hands feverishly in a circle, unable to stop him.
He got me on my feet outside on the side porch at the top of the stairs, and then grabbed my arm and pulled me behind him down a half dozen stairs to the tiny coal town yard, bisected by two clotheslines with wet hanging sheets.
Standing in the yard, between spindly wooden poles, he flung me to the ground, and I could smell the sweaty worn leather of his boots next to my face.
“You’re gonna do push ups till I tell you to stop! he snarled, his drunken breath waffling down towards me, and gave me a quick kick with the toe of his boot to start. Overcome by fear, I stayed on the ground, my face buried in the dry grass, and then he nudged me a second time with his foot to start.
I dug my hands into the dirt and somehow got myself off the ground, my arms tense and shaking, and started the up and down motion of the push ups.
After ten pushups, my arms finally gave way and I couldn’t get up again, but even then, as he laughed and called me a weakling, a kind of strength came into my young body, well, not my body, really, but my mind. And I knew at that moment, and every other moment that came later, on the battlefields of Vietnam, and in all of life’s winding journey, I knew in the deepest part of me, that no man would ever break me. It came over me like a warm steadying wave.
So I pulled myself up off the ground with still slightly quivering lips, to my knees, and looked at my father’s confident, false face, and received his gift.
Bruce Colbert, a former journalist, is an actor and playwright in New York City where his plays have been performed off-Broadway, and in Toronto. He recently completed a new collection of short stories entitled NOMAD.