Donny came by in the afternoon. We were in the seventh grade and it was one of those days when so little had gone on that it felt like two. As I often had since I was 8, I found the solution to my boredom in a wooded area that ran behind the houses on the street my house faced.
The hollow, as it was generally called, was a little streak of wilderness running through my hometown. Hickman overlooked the Mississippi River, and the work of water, in one way or another, had put the town together. From my house, I could walk to the top of the little hill and see the river or head the other way behind our house to a pathway just a few steps away that led to the hollow.
My parents worried that the hollow might be dangerous for a child and cautioned me about it from the start. To me, the hollow was almost an extension of our backyard, but at the same time a wild place. I had played my childhood games of war and cowboys there on its edge. As I grew older, I camped out in the hollow going deeper into its moss and vines each year.
The only woods I had known were near my grandparents’ home. My mother’s family lived deep in the woods on a dirt road near the Tennessee River outside Scotts Hill, Tennessee. The woods were dense with trees back then, surrounding the few open spaces people had carved out for farming, but there was far more land that had not been cleared than farmland. “Son,” my grandma would say to me, “you wander off in them woods and the Gypsies will get you and take you away with them for sure.” I had no idea who Gypsies were, what they would be doing in her woods or that the warning was a European folk tale that the settlers had brought to this country. Later in life, I knew a former federal agent who had worked around Scotts Hill hunting moonshiners. He said that there were stills you didn’t want to stumble over in those woods and laughed when he heard my Grandma’s tale of Gypsies.
My parents never were very specific about their warnings about the hollow. “You have no idea who else might be down there” is about all they would say. Still, the hollow was also a social boundary and there were areas on the other side that housed people we didn’t know. Some of the residents were stable and had lived there for years but there was also a more transient element who came and went.
Because over time I rarely had seen anyone down there, I had gone deeper and deeper into the ravine, moving up and down it freely if not climbing the other side. When I had started camping out, I had moved from my backyard to the Hollow and then worked my way down to my favorite place where the remains of a metal walking bridge that had once connected the two sides remained. The bridge’s walkway, once made of wood, had rotted away, but the bridge itself had the aura of another time. The other side of the hollow was thick with kudzu, planted no doubt to stop erosion, but for me adding to the mystery of the place. For reasons, I couldn’t say, that old bridge was one of my favorite places in town. It had the power of enchantment and just being near it transported me somewhere I had never been. Donny and I were heading to the old bridge that day in 1959 when the meaning of the hollow would change forever.
As we moved down the hollow, a group of boys approached us from the other side. We only knew one of them, Carl, a boy from our class. Although the other boys were taller and seemed older, ninth graders from another town I suspected, Carl was the ring leader. They all had B-B guns and were looking for something to shoot. Having found nothing else, they decided we would do well enough. I was an overweight soft kid and my friend was skinny and uncoordinated. They could have looked awhile and not found easier marks.
Carl and I had never had any trouble, but his face was already settling into an angry sneer of resentment at what the world hadn’t given him. To him, I was the boy from across the hollow who lived in a brick house, had all the breaks, but wasn’t smart enough to toughen up. At least that’s how I figure it now. They encircled us and shot some BBs at the ground near where we stood. Not enough satisfaction in that. “Take off your clothes or we will shoot you.” Feeling trapped, we complied. They had already humiliated us, and I hoped that would be the end of it. But it wasn’t. They all fired shots at our legs from a close range. The BBs stung and our pain was their pleasure. Standing naked in the woods, I was less worried about the pain in my legs than what might come next. I am not sure I knew the word “rape” but I knew I could be violated. “Cornholing” was what we called it. But they were bored with their game, and they let us go when I told them I was expected at home.
I would have kept this secret, and did with my friends, but I told my parents because because I was in so much trouble for making us late for dinner. My father called the other boy’s father and told him he would call the police if anything like that ever happened again. It was never spoken of in our house after that day. Carl and I never spoke to each other again that year or the next. Still, the memory lingered and made the world more complicated. I had been a fearful kid of things both real and imagined, but that day in the hollow brought a new kind of fear. There might not be ghosts under my bed, but there were people to be feared in ways I had never imagined.
My parents worried about the red spots on my legs. Those spots just showed me I could stand pain. What I could not bear was the humiliation of standing naked and knowing I could be raped if they chose and there was little I could have done about it. It was the humiliation of a rape that did not happen but could have that I have carried 60 years. I remember it more clearly than any birthday, Christmas, or academic honor. It is a rock in my pocket to remind me that no matter how people appear, you never know what will happen next.
Don’t pay heed to temptation
For his hands are so cold
You gotta help me keep the devil
Way down in the hole
Tom Waits, “Down in the Hole”
(Donny and Carl are fictional names. I don’t know what became of the real people to which they refer. My purpose here was not to out anyone. It was to capture the childhood fear of being bullied and how it follows you through life. For the first time, I was stumped for a song. My friend Mark Neumann came through with the Waits tune, which was perfect.)