In the previous chapter, I alluded to a story written a few years ago. A Summer of Hell centers on a tragic event in the summer of 1983. When I originally wrote the story for my blog, I struggled with finding an apt title. A Summer of Hell is the only title that I could come up with. What happened?
It was a summer where I experienced very horrendous abuse and the pain and its effects would last for years. I give you fair warning. The following story is emotionally rough and it’s quite real. Why am I including it? It’s a story about forgiveness and healing. Here’s what happened in the summer of ’83.
I had just graduated from high school and would be attending Stockton State College in the fall. You’d think that I’d take the summer off and have fun. Not so! I took a summer job and I was going to earn a little extra cash. As I do have physical disabilities, it would not be an easy task.
Thankfully, there is a federal job program called CETA. This job program specializes in helping people with low income or disabilities to get jobs in the public sector. In the summer, they provide job opportunities for qualifying high school students. I had received jobs through this program in the past. I was looking forward to my next job as a custodian. What could go wrong?
In July ’83, I was given a job at the Town Hall in Toms River, NJ. I would be helping to do some basic landscaping and other custodial works. I am only going to give out first names for this story. It’s been thirty years and they may well have changed since that day. My supervisor’s name was Joe and he was the head of the custodial department.
From what I recall, the man had two regular employees whose names were Eric and Paul. There were three young people who worked for my supervisor. Mike, Tim and Fay received their jobs through the same CETA program. They had a prior work history with Joe and I was the newcomer.
At first, I thought my job would entail mowing the lawns, trimming hedges and general clean up inside the Town Hall. Though I started out doing such manual labor, it grew to washing the cars of various township officials. It was good work and I enjoyed it. As a standard practice, we would meet inside the maintenance building for lunch and breaks.
That building was pure hell and my joy would soon turn to sorrow, shame and grief. What happened?
For some reason, I was on the receiving end of many nasty pranks by Mike and Tim. It seems they delighted in hosing me with a fire extinguisher. They would also spray a foamy glass cleaner at my face and throwing exploding caps at me. What am I talking about? I am certain for some sick reason, they thought it funny and acceptable to treat me as such.
If possible, these guys would have filmed the so-called horseplay and posted the videos on YouTube or Facebook. Please remember, these abusive pranks happened on a regular basis and it was not a one-time event. They simply did not see the evil being done. Here are a couple of examples.
One day I was asked, “Can you saw wood?” I had done this in the past with my father and I gave the question no further thoughts. “Certainly,” I replied and I proceeded to demonstrate. As I was sawing the wood, someone placed an exploding cap in the belt loop of my pants. When the cap exploded, the wood flew out of my hand and nearly injured Fay. They just laughed as they thought the prank was funny.
On another day, Tim and Mike tied me up with a rope and placed duct tape on my mouth. If I recall, it was done in the attic area of the maintenance building. They delighted in claiming that my mother came and left. They were clearly lying; nevertheless, I was upset and angry. “Were these clowns going to leave me up here?” I thought.
Did these young men have any clues about the harm that they were doing? In truth, they really did not care. For them it was horseplay and it was acceptable behavior. On what planet is such treatment considered acceptable? I came to feel as if no one cared about the hurts, humiliation and pain that I suffered.
Where was Fay? Was she somehow absent from all these hideous behaviors? What was her role? Joe had hired her to do office work. Fay was seldom seen outside the maintenance building. I can only recall a few such instances. As for the pranks, she was not too involved in them.
You may be asking, “Where was Joe? If he’s your boss, then why didn’t you say something?” Joe knew all about the pranks and he did nothing. Before the pranks got really bad, I did say something to my mother. She thought it was just roughhousing; however, my mother did say something. What happened? I was ridiculed for saying something and my situation got worse.
The bullies of my school were nothing compared to these sick individuals. The pranks simply got worse and worse. I have already recorded some of the many pranks done by these people and I’ve no desire to repeat it. If only these pranks were my only problems, then the resulting pain, humiliation and shame would not have been so acute. What happened?
The maintenance building consisted of three distinct areas: the garage, the break area and Joe’s office. Joe’s office had a large glass window where he could see into the break room area. Inside the break room were two desks. In the drawers of one desk, there was a ton of hard core pornographic magazines.
We’re not talking Playboy or Penthouse. The pictures went beyond the mere depiction of nudity; the scenes contained graphic sexual activities that totally shocked me. “What the hell did I get into?” I asked myself. Was my supervisor aware of this?
Somehow, I don’t think Joe was unaware of these magazines. If only such things were an aberration I would not have bothered mentioning it. As it turns out, those sick pornographic magazines were a foreshadowing of something worse.
Have you ever heard of strip wrestling? After lunch, a strange routine would occur. On a regular basis, a round of strip wrestling would occur. Each time, I was forced to wrestle Fay. I didn’t want anything to do with this sick form of wrestling but I couldn’t escape. For some strange reason, I was Fay’s target. Each time, I had to prevent her from taking my clothes off. For some reason, I felt compelled to take off hers.
The matches were brutal and demeaning for Fay and me. We would wrestle on the bare concrete floor of the maintenance building. Our bodies would be riddled with bruises. My parents did see the bruises and they asked about them. I did not say a word as I was covered with shame and guilt. For some strange reason I thought it acceptable to be treated like a piece of garbage.
Why didn’t I say something? Though I did make one attempt, I was too wrapped up in emotional pain, humiliation and shame. I don’t recall my exact thoughts and emotions; however, the pain did run deep inside of my heart. I was afraid of being exposed and I felt like running away from the horrors.
Years later, God would do a miraculous work of healing on my heart. In time, I’d come to see that I was not the only victim in that room. No one deserves to be treated like garbage. First, I needed to get the hell out of that nightmarish situation.
At one time I did make an attempt to say something to the head of Joe’s department. I was working inside the main building and I felt a strong urge to get help. My supervisor’s hired guns were not there. I spotted an opportunity and I ran for it. Unfortunately, Paul and Eric spotted me and they gave chase. I tried to dodge them and I made it to the elevator.
I did not get too far as I was stopped by the two employees, Eric and Paul. These two men were twice my size and weight. After this occurrence, my activities were curtailed and I was likely monitored. I felt like a prisoner. I never made another attempt to say anything after that one attempt.
How the heck did I get out of this nightmare? For me, I was already heading to college and I’d likely not come back this way. For Fay, Mike and Tim, this nightmare ride was going to end permanently. This sick little operation was about to end. With a touch of irony, I have to thank Mike for it.
What happened? The summer was nearing its close and I was weeks away from Stockton State College. One day I was having lunch in the break room. I got up and walked towards Joe’s office. Mike was sitting on the left side of Joe’s office door. As I approached the office, Mike grabbed my left wrist and he proceeded to use my bicep as a punching bag. As a result, a large rainbow colored bruise decorated my bicep.
Though I did not think so at the time, it was the best thing that could have happened to me. Mike’s attack would lead to the exposure of these sick individuals. How so? Like many other days, I would take a long bus ride home as my mother could not always pick me up.
On this day, the trip would be painfully longer. I was sitting on the bus and I was wearing a short sleeve shirt. I was desperately trying to hide the hideous bruise. The pain of humiliation and hurt was too much. I was too ashamed to say anything and I wanted to run away.
Oddly enough, no one noticed the look of pain written all over my face. Everyone was seemingly too busy to notice the huge colorful bruise decorating my upper left arm. How would I have reacted if someone had asked? I would have denied the obvious pains of guilt, condemnation and shame.
When I finally got home, I tried to keep the bruise hidden from my family. However, thankfully my mom saw it. You’d think that I would have spilled the beans; in truth, I wanted to hide. It did not take long before my family learned the truth. At the time, my older brother Brian was serving in the U.S. Navy and he came home for a visit.
The next day, Brian took me to work. I can still picture Brian going into Joe’s office and lifting up the man and pinning him against the office wall. My brother is a former state champion wrestler and he was easily bigger than Joe. The other employees had a look of surprise and shock on their faces. They didn’t move a muscle as my brother confronted Joe.
For me, I was experiencing a deep emotional wound and I did not know how to react to the whole thing. It seemed that I was on autopilot because I placed my lunch in the refrigerator located in the garage. It’s likely that I didn’t know what was going to happen. It’s likely that I wanted the whole thing to be over.
After my brother finished with Joe, we walked out of the maintenance building. Within minutes of leaving the building my parents arrived. Brian explained what happened. As we were talking, Mike showed up and he was totally clueless as to what had happened. As one may expect, my father and brother decided to have a little chat with Mike.
Where were Joe and his two lackeys? They stayed inside and they could hear the angry voices of my brother and father. With a touch of irony, they did the smart thing. As my dad and Brian angrily confronted Mike, a police officer arrived and calmly took control of this explosive situation.
My family told the officer of the situation. The police officer saw the hideous bruise on my upper arm and he sympathized with us. He took the information and filed a police report. We were encouraged to let the police take care of the matter and that we should not employ vigilante justice.
My family and I were happy to let the police take over. After they conducted an investigation, charges were filed against Joe and his buddies. During the course of the investigation, a shocking piece of information turned up. I was not the only victim to endure a summer of hell. These guys had done it before.
What finally happened? In time, I discovered that Joe was removed from his job. If I understand it correctly, he was put in charge of garbage. I don’t know the fate of the other two men. What about those three teens? For some reason, they chose to blame me. “It’s all your fault!” is the last thing I actually heard from them.
I wish the story ended with Joe and his cronies being busted. It was not over quite yet. I still had feelings of shame, guilt, condemnation and internal anger. I was in a world of hurt and pain. I was in desperate need of healing. At the time, no one saw the need for counseling or my need to talk.
Physical abuse is not something one can forget or get over. Victims and their families generally need help in the healing process. Did you notice that I included the families? I was not the only person hurting. The families of the victims suffer pain too.
How did we deal with the trauma? We thought Stockton State College would be the best thing for me. A change in scenery can certainly help; however, it is not a substitute for dealing with the underlying pain. I still felt a strong need to talk about the horrors of that summer. Thankfully, I met some friends at Stockton State College who I could talk with. They encouraged me to share rather than hide.
I thank God for good friends who knew what to do. What did they do? There is a time for talk and there is a time to listen. In truth, they probably didn’t know what to say so they did the smart thing. It’s called “listening”. It was not enough to just talk because the pain would still be there. Sooner or later, I needed to forgive my tormentors.
When I chose to forgive these people, I was choosing to let go of the pain and sorrow plaguing my heart. I won’t claim that it’s easy to forgive; it’s not. I was going to need help. I could not do it alone. There is a limit to what my earthly friends could do. I needed help from a different friend, Jesus.
If you get to this point, then you may think that I’m about to whip out a magic wand and the grief of the trauma would disappear. I am happy to disappoint you, for there is no such wand, potion or idiotic spell that can touch a man with a broken spirit. What about time itself? I am not talking about a physical wound; rather it’s a wound of the heart and mind. For this type of wound I needed serious help.
Though I didn’t know it, the horrors of that summer had left some very nasty seeds in my heart. For one, I already mentioned the numbness that I experienced. It’s good that I was encouraged to talk about it. I needed to acknowledge it. Originally I wanted to hide it. Numbness is rarely the only effect. There is also the issue of trust and safety.
Years later I would discover that the trauma had thrown my sense of trust for a loop. Yes, there is the issue of trusting other people. There is also the issue of trusting yourself. I was wracked with internal fears and indecisions. When shall I come out of this hidey hole of mine?
In the fall of 1990, I started to come out of that hidey hole. As a nominal Catholic, I already knew about God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; however, I did not have a personal relationship through Jesus Christ. On that particular autumn evening, I asked Jesus to come in and save me.
In time, I would come to know Jesus as my Lord, Savior and Friend. For me, it’s not just about getting into Heaven; it’s about a relationship. Where was God and how does God figure into this story? For one thing, it was God’s Spirit that literally helped me in forgiving Joe and the others.
Yes, I did say the “F” word: forgive. I can assure you that it was a very painful experience and I’m glad that I did it. Did they deserve it? Though I was sincere, they really didn’t deserve it. I simply chose to take them off my personal hook. In other words, I chose to say “No” to bitterness and anger. I chose to leave them in the Father’s hands. For whom the Son sets free, he or she is free!
What happens when you choose to forgive? It’s not always easy to say “I forgive”; however, it’s an important step in one’s healing. For me, I chose to say “Yes” to the healing of my heart and to open the door for God to work on my heart.