The following chapter is excerpted from the autobiographical book, "The Gift." We will be sharing a new chapter in each issue.
A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right.
Thomas Paine ~ American Political Activist
I was young and had no idea how to deal with the polite avoidance that I confronted on a daily basis from other kids and adults alike. I was a living contradiction. At the same time I clung to the popular beliefs of the day, attitudes that defined most everyone’s place in our society. Beliefs that dictated the roles we played in our society of the mid-twentieth century. Minorities, women, and the disabled had specific immutable stature. I was about to learn I too had a place in that society.
In my heart of hearts I believed America was at its lowest point in history. Our army was fighting against the domino affect of communism that could spread around the globe. While our soldiers were risking their lives in Vietnam, protesters at home were demanding we get out of the war. Black people were demanding equal rights and had the nerve to burn down their own neighborhoods. My opinion was Martin Luther King was no doubt a communist who was stirring rebellion among black people. If the colored people didn’t like it here they could leave anytime! Immigrants had the audacity to try to start a union of farm workers that guaranteed better working conditions. Black people, Latino people, women, hippies, and even queers wanted a piece of the pie.
One evening in August of 1967 in less than a couple of minutes my entire world-view would forever change. I went by myself to see the just released movie, Bonnie and Clyde, showing at the Mesa Theater ten miles north of Gilbert in Mesa, Arizona. I was standing in line to buy a ticket when this guy behind me walked around to get a better look at my face. After taking a good long hard look he burst out laughing. I ignored him as I always did in those situations. He went back in line behind me and before too long he was at it again. He was no doubt showing off to his girlfriend when he asked me what happened, using much cruder language. I once again ignored his questions and taunts. Even though he was behind me I could tell by the tone of his voice and his language he was becoming increasingly irritated. Without warning, from behind he hit me with an open hand, boxing my right ear. He struck me with such force I fell down on the concrete.
“Now do I have your attention?” he shouted.
I immediately stood up, tears were running down my face while I covered my ear and looked at him. I could feel the blood was running between my fingers and down my right arm.
"What the hell happened to your ugly ass, fucked up face?"
I had never been the focus of such blatant violence. I didn't know how to react. Again, with his open right hand, he slapped me as hard as he could across the left side of my mouth. Once again he knocked me down to the concrete. At that time I wore braces. The force of his second slap across my face embedded the braces into the tissue of my left cheek. People were getting out of the way while I again got up from the concrete. I wasn’t keeping track of the time, but it all seemed to happen in less than a minute. I don’t remember where the guy went. All I know for sure is that he was gone and no one in the crowd helped me. In less than a minute the most traumatic event in my life was over. I walked to my dad’s truck and drove through the countryside back to Gilbert.
I was halfway back to Gilbert when the pain in my mouth became excruciating. I parked in the darkness along a dirt road near an irrigation ditch. Using my finger I dislodged the metal braces that were embedded in the tissue inside my left cheek. It hurt a lot; it hurt a hell of a lot, and it bled profusely. I sat alongside the dirt road next to an irrigation ditch in the darkness. I began to sob not only because of the pain but because I was brutally reminded that I was different and not wanted. I realized that night that I would forever be one of those people who no matter what I did, would never fit. I must have sat by the irrigation ditch for an hour before I could drive. I drove on the dirt roads that surrounded Gilbert in the sixties. I got home that evening around midnight. My parents were in bed, but not asleep. Through the darkness I said hello and went to the bathroom. I cleaned the remaining blood from my right ear and face and then took three pain pills. I noticed my left cheek was beginning to swell. I have to note at this time I was going through nonstop facial reconstruction surgeries and procedures. I’ll give greater detail later. The next morning my dad noted that my cheek looked swollen and asked if it hurt. I told him it hurt a little, but it was because of the work doctors were doing on my left cheek.
The brief encounter shook me to my core and changed my life. Over time this single incident caused me to reexamine some of my basic beliefs. Nothing was ever the same. It was a violent act directed at me solely because of my face. It was the only time in my life where I experienced violence first hand. To this day I have no idea who the guy was, but his actions made a lasting mark on the rest of my life. I kept this to myself until I told my wife many years after the fact. So why did I tell you this particular story? As I've stated before the reaction to my face has brought out the best and the worst in people. I had no idea what motivated this guy to hit me.
Why me, was the question I asked myself for a long time after. The truth is this guy didn’t need much of a reason to justify hitting me. He was in and out of my life in a couple of minutes, at the most.
I began to understand that not everything we’re told is necessarily true. Over the years I learned I have much more in common with marginalized people than I initially thought. The truth is we all have much more in common with each other than we admit.