Sheer striped-print curtains that hung from cheap white curtain rods blew softly in an April breeze. I remember that day well. Dad and I lay on our bellies, watching Vin Scully, the voice of the Dodgers baseball while eating from a tray of Ritz crackers and a jar of Skippy Peanut Butter on the bed in my parent’s bedroom. I was thirteen and the Dodgers were playing the Chicago Cubs.
Although the Cubs were in last place, we never missed a televised game. Dad wasn’t much of a fan but he never let an opportunity to reminisce about his days growing up in Chicago slide by. The stories had a similar thread, which included elaborations about arguments on train cars, Golden Gloves competitions and walking down the wrong street late at night. Every story he told offered a moral of how to defend a “life of integrity,” as he called it.
This day he would tell me about how he ran into and eventually arm-wrestled ‘Mr. Cub,’ Ernie Banks, for twenty bucks. I remember how he described things with enthusiastic hand gestures, bicep flexing and a mock demonstration of the event, which knocked over the jar of peanut butter, sending the butter knife across the room before landing in an open drawer of rolled socks. Even though he lost to Ernie, Dad was my hero. He began to spin another tale until he abruptly stopped and pointed at the window and its billowing curtain. Along with the flowing curtains was an arm reaching inside the window. It took a moment before I realized what was wrong. My heart leapt into my throat and my mind blanked at what to do. The next thing I saw was my father carefully and calmly sidling near the window. As dad grabbed the intruders arm, the scent of peanut butter filled the room, and I thought how much louder struggles are in the movies. I was equally amazed and scared at the same time. It seemed graceful as my father pulled the arm further through the window with one hand as the other hand reached towards an old hatchet he kept in the top dresser drawer for situations like this.
Dad made a point of showing me all of the locations where he had hid weapons throughout the house. When I was younger, he pulled an 18-inch long pipe from between the cushions of the couch. It was gray, solid, and had one end carefully wrapped in silver duck tape for a better grip. “Remember, step in it when you swing this at someone, just like in baseball.” And he stepped toward me swinging the pipe at my ribs, stopping short of hitting me. “I like to go straight to the head, but the ribs are an easy target, and it is good because it sets up the second shot,” he told me. This time he back-handed the pipe toward my face, again stopping short before carefully pressing the cold metal against my temple, jaw, the bridge of my nose, and neck – showing me the key strike points to get my important ideas across. “Remember, don’t be a pussy, it’s just like baseball.”
He went on to explain that he preferred heavy blunt objects for outer rooms of a house: bats in the living room, pipes in the dining room, that sort of thing. He reasoned that blunt instruments were good for breaking bones and teeth, for negotiation without permanent injury, which might lead toward a road of rehabilitation. “Everyone deserved a second chance,” he would say. However, break-ins through a bedroom window required a devious mind looking for an element of surprise on a sleeping or disabled victim, an act less worthy of forgiveness. Slicing-type weapons, he explained, were good for ending things quickly. He always told me, “Just make sure the cops understood you felt your life was in danger.”
I soon discovered the arm was connected to a whole person. A young man, maybe in his early twenties, wearing a red and black football jersey struggled against being pulled further into our home. Dad’s fingers strained toward the hatchet, which was just out of his reach. “Don’t just fucking sit there you fucking punk, give me a hand.” I scrambled out of bed towards the dresser, although I wanted to close my eyes and pray this would go away. I knocked over the tray of Ritz Crackers with a crash. “What the fuck is wrong with you?” Dad grunted.
I picked up the hatchet with both hands and hesitated with it. It was dark brown cold metal with a worn wooden handle and it was heavier than it appeared. Outside wall of our home, there was a loud bang. It was a second young man now pulling the first back out the window. Dad tried to grab at the arm with his other free hand came too late. The two men pulled free. Dad leaned out window to get a better view of the thieves and turned for his car keys. Dad then grabbed a handful of my hair and pushed me down the hall and out the front door. I saw the thieves running down the street as we hopped into Dad’s gold Chevy Van, the kind with the bubble window in the back, and raced after them.
As we closed in, my hands gripped tighter around the hatchet. Sitting in the cracked vinyl seats, I tried not thinking about what might happen next. Still, I imagined having to swing the hatchet full force at one of the young men. In my mind, I saw blood spatter and Dad egging me on to do it again. Then the car skidded to a stop in front of Mr. Polk’s house as the young men ran up the driveway. “Those fucking morons are trapped,” Dad smiled and reached behind the driver’s side seat pulling out a fourteen-inch long monkey wrench, which fell, unfortunately, into the blunt object category. I knew he was right, the Polk’s had tall fences in their yard. “He looked at me and then calmly said, “Don’t be a pussy, alright? Be a man and defend your fucking home.”
We both got out of the car and walked up the driveway. Dad held the monkey wrench in one hand with its head resting on the top of his shoulder. We then walked past Mr. Polk’s guava tree. On more restful afternoons, Dad and I would occasionally stop by and feast on overripe guava that had fallen in the grass. Dad was right. The two were trying to scale a tall black sheet metal fence in the Polk’s yard. When they saw us, the one wearing the blue zipper front hooded sweatshirt turned and charged toward us. His jeans were cuffed and his hands were clawed, which did make sense to me but I still didn’t know how to defend it. His tennis shoes slipped slightly on the wet grass just as he got to my father. He seemed to move in slow motion. I knew I had enough time to get a good swing at him but my arms felt like jell-o, and my legs felt like they were buried in cement. Dad brought the wrench off his shoulder and down across the young man’s temple. The sound was full – much bigger than I had expected. The bones broke simultaneously throughout the entire side of his face. His body went entirely limp before falling backwards in the same way old football clips showed opposing players driven into the ground by Dick Butkis.
The young man lay on his back in an unnatural position in the damp grass and the whites of his eyes bulged through his closed eyelids in a way I had never seen before. The man with the red and black jersey looked much younger than he did when he was dangling in my parent’s bedroom window. He began to sob. “I’m sorry. We are poor. I promise never to bother you again. I know nothing. Please, please leave me alone.” I knew he was telling the truth and felt badly for him. Dad paused for a moment and then gestured as if to usher the young man past us and down Mr. Polk’s driveway. With great hesitation, he started for the driveway. When he got in front of me, dad yelled, “Be a man and fucking crack this guy. Do it now!” Without thinking, I raised up the hatchet with both hands. The young man covered his face with his hands. “Dad, I can’t do this. I really want to but he said he was sorry – and I don’t know if I could do it anyway.” There was another pause, then, Dad stepped forward and came up with the wrench catching the first intruder underneath the chin, snapping his head back and spraying blood across my Los Angeles Dodgers home-field T-shirt, before he hit the ground.
Dad turned towards me in disgust and nodded us towards his car. Halfway down the driveway dad put his arm around me. Neither one of looked back. When we got in the gold Chevy Van, Dad methodically buckled up for the ride a half a block home. I knew what happened was wrong. Still, I rarely thought about those men again. Even though, they were probably boys. Dad had a strong code of ethics about taking care of the family because no one else would. There had to be a penalty when lines in the sand were crossed. There had to be a reaction. They were a cause and Dad was an effect. They were on that day an understanding of a concept. For me, they were not quite real. They were part of Dad’s rules for survival and , for many years, for me.
When I look back now, it was me who was the monster for not calling the police or an ambulance that day. In the moment, I felt respect for him. Dad always protected our home. His hatchet is now on my dresser. I would later understand all his philosophy as “honor among thieves.” “Don’t worry, they won’t be back. I think they learned something today, Everyone deserves a second chance.” He swiveled, turning around in the driver’s seat before sliding the monkey wrench back in its usual place, and then turned the ignition. As we pulled in front of our house, I felt older. He smiled at me and said, “You can let go of the hatchet now.” He was still my hero.
About the Author: A joyfully dubious childhood has led Devin Galaudet to cross a variety of careers including film, construction, antiques, and gambling. He is currently gambling as a freelance writer, the Editor of In The Know Traveler, an online travel magazine, and an MFA at Antioch University at Los Angeles.