Just a Kid

by Brenda Applequist

I’m sure that mom was feeling alone and overwhelmed. The divorce was final and we were finally settled in a house of our own. The five of us kids were in the routine of school and daycare. At 31 years of age, mom was working two jobs. I don’t remember exactly how or when it happened. I just know that one day he was there.

His name was Tom and he quickly became my mom’s second husband, our stepdad. He was playful, funny and helpful. My mom was happy and seemed to have someone to share the load. I remember he worked at the elementary school where we attended. We felt special when he paid us extra attention at school. The kids flocked to him during recess because he was full of energy and played games. I remember when my sister and I were in sixth grade, he stayed up all night sewing dresses for us to wear to our luau celebration.

It happened slowly. My siblings and I started to notice a feeling of uneasiness when we were around Tom. I’m sure it wasn’t conscious but none of us wanted to be alone with him. We never talked out loud about it because it was understood that we didn’t question mom. We did try however, to draw her attention to our concerns. I remember him in the kitchen cooking dinner for all of us. He sang and joked while he cooked. It smelled nasty and we exchanged worried looks when he wasn’t looking. I remember mom was worried too but didn’t want him to know.
We didn’t know what to expect so were quiet as we sat down to eat. Imagine our joy as we saw a homemade, cooked okra dish. We had never even seen or heard of okra and couldn’t get past the smell. We took our cue from mom and pretended to eat and have happy talk. When he wasn’t looking we were allowed to throw it away. I was confused as to what was going on. Mom was such a strong woman but was so quiet even when after dinner he made us wash the paper plates and drain them in the drainer. He thought it was so funny, but we understood this was not a joke and we better do it.

Tom fixed things around the house. A few of us kids hung around the basement while he worked on the lawn mower. My brother was trying to learn and stood closer than the rest of us. Tom told him where to stand so he could see and then pulled back to start the mower. He hit my brother right in the face. It was not an accident but mom wouldn’t listen when we tried to tell her. My brother suffered two black eyes.

The thing we didn’t know and wouldn’t have understood at that time was that Tom had recently returned from Vietnam. Only now do I know the impact the Vietnam War had on our soldiers. According to the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study (NVVRS) done in 1983 over half of all veterans experienced Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms after returning from the war. The prevalence of alcohol problems, depression and anxiety was also high.

Knowing all this would not have made our final experience with Tom any easier. It was less than a year after Tom entered our family and we were going camping for our summer vacation. I remember being relieved when we pulled into Itasca State Park and there were other campers all around. We didn’t even get out of the car before he pulled out saying, “This is too crowded.” I was scared and as I looked at my siblings faces I realized I was not alone.

We set up camp in an out of the way area on someone’s private property. Tom left to get something from town. It was still daylight when he returned. He was angry and drunk. We skipped rocks in the nearby pond while Tom and mom fought because she took the keys and wouldn’t give them back. We were getting really good at acting as if nothing was happening. Tom destroyed the campsite, overturning tables and ripping down the tent. He said something about killing himself and then I saw blood coming from his wrists. In the confusion he had tried to slit his wrists and then took off saying something about jumping off a cliff. I didn’t know if there was a cliff around but we all took off after him. It was dark when mom finally got him calmed down and we left for home. The house keys were lost, so Tom kicked the front door in when we got home. Before I fell asleep I heard him and mom talking quietly. He was gone when we woke up, and I never heard anything of him again until his funeral a couple of years later. He was killed in a single-car drunk driving accident.

These events were never discussed and are still a taboo subject. I have continued the tradition of camping with my children and would love to take them to the Boundary Waters, but cannot get past the seclusion of such a trip.

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One Response to “Just a Kid”

  1. Kristin Says:

    I really liked this! It really kept my interest and made me want to keep reading to see what was going to happen. Thank you for sharing a personal experience like this.

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