Push Hard to Open – Sledgehammer

Chapter 5 ~ Sledgehammer

If a nation loses its storytellers, it loses its childhood. –
Peter Handke

I was four years old when I woke to severe sounds like a giant sledgehammer taking down the support beams of our house.

We lived in an old, white, creaky farmhouse in Fort Dodge, Iowa.  The type of house I’d love to find today to fix up. There was a front porch, a side porch, and a back entryway that had a huge sheet of thick plastic duct-taped to the doorway to keep the winter wind and snow from entering and crystallizing our kitchen.

Off the kitchen was a bathroom and beyond the bathroom was a door to the dark, damp, dirt-floor basement. Sometimes my punishment would be to sit on the stairs leading to the basement.


I slowly scaled down the staircase to discover what was making the loud noise. My older cousin Kevin was sitting in a chair in the living room by the front door. Frozen with fear, stuck to that chair, he motioned for me to go back upstairs. I went up and came back later to find the chair empty. This time I went all the way down the long staircase and headed to the lit dining room.

My dad and older brother were sitting at the table. In the corner of the room, where our telephone was attached high on the wall, were many jagged holes.

My dad asked me if I knew where my mother was.

I didn’t.

We three, me, my older brother and my drunk dad, waited at the table until she came home.

She arrived drunk as usual. He made her sit down and asked her where she’d been. Of course, she said she’d been out looking for him. As was often the case.

He raised his rifle and put the end of the barrel in her mouth with his finger on the trigger. I begged him not to shoot my mommy.

He pulled the gun away and shot into the corner.


We sat there, we four, as he repeatedly aimed, cocked the gun, and shot into the corner for what felt like hours.

I don’t remember how that night finally ended. I’m sure along the lines of, “It’s late, go to bed. Your mom and I need to talk.” Which is domestic violence-speak for I’m going to beat the shit out of your mother now and possibly rape her.

Much of what I remember from my childhood takes place in sounds. Sound memory.

I remember the sounds best.

I didn’t always witness the abuse in action with my eyes. I cowered in my room or paced my room looking for a weapon, making a plan to kill my dad. The sounds are what I remember.

I also remember the evil look in my dad’s eyes when he’d tell us in detail how he’d kill us all.

The next day, after the abuse, was the visual horror show.

My mom’s face cut up, swollen, black, blue and purple eyes. Blood spatter on the walls. Lots of things destroyed. Tables bent and broken. Walls with holes from my dad’s fist or my mom’s head. Pabst Blue Ribbon cans.

The smell of alcohol and cigarettes permeated our prison.

It’s amazing you can grow up in such a terror filled home and still have some okay moments. A few normal family memories sprinkled here and there, but not enough to outweigh the damage, the shame, the guilt, the inability to let anyone in.

I’ve been out of my childhood now and on the other side longer than I was in my childhood. I need to understand the weight it carries into my life now. Have I created all of this on my own here on the other side?

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