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“The happiest adults are those who never buried old toys or abandoned imaginary friends.”

Richelle E. Goodrich

My brother and I used to build forts for our Army men, those plastic soldiers sold by the dozens in clear plastic bags in dollar stores. We built towers and walls, bunkers and other fortifications, and painstakingly positioned the soldiers in precarious perches, behind walls and barricades, guarding roads and buildings. We enclosed a group of soldiers in a bunker housing the headquarters, the most fortified construction we could make with building blocks, alphabet cubes, and Lincoln Logs. 

The real fun started when we obtained thick rubber bands, the kind wrapped around Sunday newspapers. We aimed the rubber bands at various targets, taking soldiers down, obliterating the weaker fortifications. We had a number of “bombs” we hurled at the fort, often alphabet blocks, and along with the rubber bands, we slowly dismantled the defenses, spreading death and destruction all over the floor. My brother and I occupied ourselves for hours at a time playing this version of war. It was, perhaps, our most bonding activity, a simple game that quieted our otherwise fierce sibling rivalry. 

Dad had told me months before the backyard boxing match that he identified with my brother more than he did me, that I was a mystery to him. I was jealous, feeling left out between Dad’s preference for my brother and Mom’s preference for my sister, a sort of living dress-up doll upon whom Mom lavished attention, curling her hair, dressing her in frilly dresses, tights, and Mary Janes.

I was jealous of my brother because he seemed like a boy Dad could love, and I was jealous of my sister because she got to be, well, a girl. The awful irony in this was my sister’s utter dislike of being dressed up and put on display. She wanted to be like her brothers, wearing jeans and t-shirts, tennis shoes and ball caps, and I resented her for it. 

Paula Sophia
Paula Sophia (provided)

I hate to say these resentments damaged the capacity for close relationships later in life. Mom and Dad demanded loyalty even to the exclusion of each other. Eventually, predictably, my brother enmeshed himself with Dad, my sister with Mom, and that would never change even after we all became adults.  I was not nice to my siblings, seething with jealousy and hurt. I bullied them, asserting dominance when I could, expressing feelings I dared not show Mom and Dad. I regret such behavior to this day, even while understanding I was not developmentally mature enough to handle rivalry of this sort. 

The boxing match inspired Dad to invest more effort into our relationship, which felt like a huge boon to me. I valued his attention, though perplexing at times, because his efforts seemed to have an agenda with a desired outcome. I was to be his protégé. He even used what I have learned to be behaviorist approaches to groom me. He created conditions and expected responses, often disappointed by the results. 

The first test came one afternoon while my brother and I were playing war in our bedroom. He stormed into the room, thrusting the door open and obliterating a third of our battlefield. The debris on the floor annoyed him, and he yelled at my brother to clean up the mess. 

“As for you,” he said, “We need to talk.” 

Dad pointed a finger at me and motioned me out of the room. I thought I was in deep trouble, set up, perhaps, by my brother or sister. Perhaps, I had done something I thought of as benign but which infuriated Dad. 

Dad led me into the master bedroom, reached beneath the bed, and pulled out a stack of magazines nestled in a big shoebox. “It’s time for you to put your toys away.”

I started to leave the room to help my brother, but he grabbed my arm. 

“I mean, you need to stop playing with toys. You’re getting big enough for other things.”
He motioned toward the stack of magazines. He grabbed one from the top, turned it over, and handed it to me. The cover said “Hustler” and had a photo of a near-naked woman with impossibly large breasts, a platinum blonde bouffant, and garish makeup to include shiny red lipstick, lips shaped in a big O, like she had been pleasantly surprised. She had doe eyes, vulnerable yet… at the time I could not quite comprehend the incongruence. However, in recollection, I understood that she was not so innocent, somehow tainted, nothing like the girls I had admired at school or in the neighborhood. She was different. Unreal.   

Dad placed the magazine in my hands. “Take a look.”

I opened the pages and saw a cartoon featuring some guy called “Chester the Molester.” He was chasing some naked women, and he had a string coming out of his mouth. I read the caption but did not understand the punchline. 

Dad laughed and punched my arm at the shoulder, playful but a little too hard. I tried not to wince. “Don’t you get it?”

I did not know what to say, so I paged through the magazine until I found the centerfold, the same woman on the cover, but this time, she was fully naked, one hand “done there” and another above her head, back arched, a smile of ecstasy, half-closed eyes staring out like she was looking at the viewer.

My first reaction was repulsion. She was pretty but ugly at the same time, crass and shocking to my uncomprehending eyes. She was corrosive, kind of like bleach, a toxin to avoid.  

Dad nudged me. “What do you think?”

“She’s pretty,” I managed to respond.

“Pretty? That’s all you can say? Son, you’ve got a lot to learn.”

Dad told me I could keep the magazine, that I could take it out to play but cautioned me not to do it in front of anyone but him. “You’ll have to play with yourself for a while, but when you’re a little older, you can do it with other people.” Then, he laughed. 

I did not understand what he was talking about, nor did I understand his laughter. I forced myself to smile. “Okay, Dad.”

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Last Updated October 22, 2021, 6:36 PM by Brett Dickerson – Editor