Running Girl

The current concept of domestic violence – as well as legislation, criminal penalties and public viewpoints related to it – has evolved since I was young. There was a time when the term was not well-known and law enforcement had a different view.

In 1978, as a Park Service employee, I called for a State Trooper to investigate a night-long altercation between domestic partners. The fracas had occurred in a state campground and had been understandably upsetting to other campers.

After the investigation I was told by the responding officer, “You know, they made their bed and they have to sleep in it.”

This was a simplistic interpretation of law enforcement's philosophy at the time – the belief that whatever happened between domestic partners was their business unless it affected others. Because of my personal experience, I differed with the perspective of law enforcement. Public attitudes and legal policies in the United States have come a long way since then.

My first introduction to the idea of domestic violence was in 1961. By that time my parents had nine children. At twelve years old, I was the eldest. They had a 960-acre farm and 150 head of cattle. During the busiest times of the year they hired help.

Help was either a hired man or a hired girl. If a man was hired, he would do farm work with my father. A hired girl would care for the children, cook and keep house. When a girl was employed my mother would work the farm with my father. My dad claimed our mother was the best “hired man” he could find.

My parents loved each other very much. I never saw either of them lay a harsh or unloving hand on the other. However, they were as different as night and day. My dad was lean, taciturn, patient, soft-spoken and gentle. My mother was voluptuous, loud, temperamental, impatient and loving with a heart as big as her bosom. And she hated our DC-3 Case tractor.

Mom suspected that, “whoever designed the DC-3 Case had to have been on drugs.”

She wanted the designers flogged. This tractor had wheels in front of the radiator (not under as in a sensible arrangement). The steering rod, which connected the steering wheel to the front wheels, was on the outside of the tractor, and thus subject to vibration. The steering rod had a tendency to disconnect from the wheels when pulling an implement in the field. The front wheels would then jackknife and the front end would slide. The driver would have to dismount, use the tractor's crank to re-align the wheels and tie the steering rod back on with baling wire.

These frequents mishaps were infuriating to our mother. She urged our father to trade in the tractor. Our dad – being the ultimate fiscal conservative – was not about to do that until he found a suitable deal. In the meantime, he was happy to provide all the baling wire necessary to keep the old clunker working.

When my mother had to drive the DC-3, she was likely to be in foul spirits by supper time. One day as we sat down to the evening meal she was more critical than usual. She had driven the DC-3 for two days straight and was livid about the number of times she had to use the crank and the baling wire. Her voice rose as she vented her frustration.

My father's response was asymmetrical. He began to tease her – he knew that a little joshing usually lessened her cranky moods. My mother responded with some play-acting of her own as she transitioned from anger to grudging acceptance. She got up from the table, picked up a frying pan and thundered “I don't know who I would like to whack the most, you or those damned Case engineers.”

This was a cue for the children to shout “Dad, hide in the pantry.”

My dad pretended to bolt in fear and took shelter in the pantry at the side of the dining room. Immediately all the kids jumped up and leaned on the pantry door. (We had done this before and knew the drill). Dad started pounding on the door from the inside.

The uproar went quiet when someone yelled. “Hey! Brenda just took off.”

Brenda was the hired girl – about sixteen at the time. She usually stayed the night, going home on the weekends. Brenda lived in town, eight miles from the farm and was making a good start at running all the way back. Looking back, I suppose that even before the ruckus started her nerves were already a bit raw.

“Oh for Pete's sake” said my mother to my father “Leonard, go get her, would you.”

By this time Brenda was out of the driveway, onto the gravel county road and heading north. Our Dad went to fetch her in his '51 fastback Chevy. By the time he caught up to her, she was still running and had tears streaming down her face. He pulled alongside her, rolled down the window and called out “We were just letting off steam. We weren't fighting for real.”

According to my dad, that is what she needed to hear. She got into the car with him.

Later, after Brenda and the younger kids were in bed, I heard my folks talking. My mother reminded my dad that, “There is real fisticuffs between Brenda's folks. Maybe we ought to cool it here with the yelling and stuff.”

My dad's reply was,“Okay. I recall how my dad was. Sometimes he made me feel like running off.”

I was dumbfounded, but Brenda's raw nerves now made sense to me. I had recently read Steinbeck's fiction story “The Murder” which mentioned a man whipping his wife. I found it imagineable that husbands and wives would beat each other in real life. We now know that such things are much too real.

Brenda worked for us a while longer. Then she graduated from High School, moved away and got married. A few years later she came back to visit and my Dad gave her a ride in his airplane. After the ride, she took me aside and said, “I got a good marriage and I owe it to your folks to have showed me what a good marriage looks like”.

“That's good”, I said.

I was in high school by then and thought of her as sophisticated. She smoked and wore the latest fashions.

“You got a girlfriend?” she asked.

I blushed. “No!”

“Well, you're ready. I know you've learned how to treat a girl right.”

I turned beet red and stammered. She punched me in the shoulder, but not too hard.

On the issue of domestic violence, we've come a long way and we have a long way to go. In America, more than 3 million children witness domestic violence in their homes every year.

I offer a prayer: For anyone running from trouble, let there be someone to come beside them and offer a place of safety; and let all know what a safe place looks like.