My recollections of that time are dim, as it was almost 43 years ago that it occurred, but not so dim that one would forget a time your own father cried in front of you.
I was five years old, and as five year old boys are prone to do, I was up to something naughty. the actual event, or act, I have thoroughly forgotten. But it was something bad enough that it warranted one of those,” Wait till your Father comes home”, screams from my mother. She further wailed, “you’ll get a spanking...”. This latter declaration put the fear of God into me, this I remember well.
My father worked for Honeywell computers in San Francisco, went to work at 7am and returned home to our suburban rental 15 miles north across the Golden Gate Bridge at 6pm daily. I don’t think he liked the job, but he did always seemed to be happy when he got home. But I could tell that things were changing in the house, the mood had gone a bit grimmer, and some darkness had fallen over the house. I know now that this was caused by my parents pending divorce. My little brother and I were unaware of this new and dividing circumstance, and went about our simple lives, caring only about what kids typically do; swimming, playing in the yard, that kind of thing.
I didn’t want a spanking. No, I did not. I pleaded with my mother, put on my best 5 year old salesman’s act to get out of it, tried to bribe her. Nothing worked. What I had done must have been pretty bad for her not to cave in to these childish entreaties. So I set about to worry, about what it was like to actually get a spanking.
Spankings were things of legend, from tales told on the Kindergarten playground. Spankings were things to be feared. I had never had a real spanking, and I had never, ever, been hit in any fashion by my father. This terrified me even more, because I don’t think I had ever even seen my father be angry before, let alone enraged enough to strike his own child. Palpable fear crept into my little body at 5 o’clock on that afternoon. What was to come?
I was in my dark little room when I heard my father come home. He walked in and spoke to my mother in the kitchen, I heard loud conversation, and protesting from my father. Then silence. Footsteps toward the door signalled that he was coming, for me. I was already crying.
As he entered the room he looked beaten down, and already sorry for what was to come. He made some small talk about what had happened, and that my mother was very angry with me, and that YES I was about to get a spanking. The next thing he said was, “ I don’t really want to do this, but your mother...”, He trailed off, and then said, “Turn over...”.
My crying continued as he spanked me three or four times with his open hand on my butt. Then that was it over, just like that. That is when I noticed that he too had a tear in his eye, not like my tears, his were tears that reflected much, much more than what he had found himself forced to do. His tears were that of a man compromised, a man pushed into an act, which to him was barbaric and unkind, against someone much smaller, weaker, and innocent than himself.
My father never again laid a hand on me, save for that occasional tap to the back of the head when I was a teenager, but those taps I had coming. He always led a life of non-violence, except in pick-up basketball games on Berkeley playgrounds where he was frequently paired off against early 70’s activists, who did not share his non-violent ways.
Often people say that you learn from the pain of experiences you’ve had, well in this case I did. But it wasn’t the pain of the spanking, it was the pain in my father’s eyes that taught me all I needed to learn. Because I remember the day you cried.
(My father, Bob Woodward, is still very much alive and well and is still following his non-violent ways. God bless him.)