To the Word

Reflections on the call to live by the Word of God

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Location: Mud Creek, Tennessee, United States

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Popeye Arms and a Huge Red Hand

"Mama, Dennis starts it every time. He always starts it."

My mother pulled my lower lip outward and patted the bloody spot with a wad of pink toilet paper. "You ought to feel sorry for Dennis," she said. "His parents are divorced, and he never sees his father anymore."

My mother's words were no comfort to a six-year-old boy with a swelling lip and a mass of perfumed toilet paper dissolving in his mouth. Earlier in the year, Dennis and his mother had moved in with Dennis's grandparents, a couple of doors down from our house. The summer before first grade Dennis and I played outside together every day. And every day, it seemed, we fought. Dennis didn't always win, but he didn't lose, either. Dennis never cried, never admitted defeat. If I threw him down so hard that he rose up heaving, fighting back tears, he slapped the dirt and leaves off the side of his face and shouted, "That didn't hurt."

At the end of first grade, Dennis disappeared. One evening I heard my mother and father talking about what had happened: Dennis's mother had married an Army sergeant just back from Vietnam, and they were living now in another state.

A full year passed before I saw Dennis again, playing kickball in the street with the neighborhood kids. Dennis had grown and now stood menacingly taller than I remembered him. Still, it didn't take five minutes for us to begin arguing over whose turn it was to kick. We glared at each other, fists cocked at our sides. But this time Dennis did something different.

"I'll get my Dad," he shouted, and took off for his grandparents' house.

"Yea. Sure you will," I said to his back, quietly terrified that he might really do it.

A minute later Dennis appeared with his stepfather–a red-haired man with Popeye-size forearms, deep wrinkles in his forehead, and no visible lips. The Army sergeant. The children stopped talking. Dennis beamed. His stepfather said nothing–simply towered there on the sidewalk, smoking an unfiltered cigarette, watching us.

After a while we quit paying attention to Dennis's stepfather and gave ourselves over to play. A few minutes later Dennis and I were arguing again. This time, without thinking, I slugged Dennis, hard, on the shoulder. He clutched the hurt place, and I braced for the counterattack. But instead of hitting me, he stood there, looking over my shoulder, his eyes beginning to water. Dennis suddenly ran around me, toward the sidewalk.

Then I remembered, behind me, the Army sergeant. I forced myself to turn around. Thirty-five years later, the image I saw is still burned into my heart.

The man had stepped off the sidewalk and squatted down far enough for Dennis's head to rest on his shoulder. Dennis was sobbing, unencumbered and unashamed. His stepfather pressed his own cheek closer to Dennis’s and, with a huge, red hand, rubbed the boy’s back as he wept.

Although I had not yet learned the word, I knew even at the time that I was witnessing a transformation. Dennis was being blessed with something vital. He needed a father to love him, to hold him, to give him the freedom and security to cry. And in that display of raw tenderness and emotion, his was not the only heart being transformed.

Copyright 2004, Milton Stanley


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