This is a sad story. No, a tragic one. But as sometimes happens, good can come out of such things, though built on the bones of suffering.
It’s almost 2 a.m., but the child dares not sleep because he knows what’s coming. Lying next to him on the cracked linoleum are his older sister and younger brother. They’re fitfully asleep because they can’t keep their eyes open. But they, too, are tense.
Now, it’s a little past 2, and the Imperial Beach bars are closed. As expected, he hears the door to the shabby 21-foot trailer open and slam, and then, footsteps. He sees a heavy work shoe step between him and his brother and advance toward the curtain, behind which cringes his mother.
Then the abuse starts, as it always seems to. He hears his father loudly berate and shout vile insults at his wife, sometimes hitting her. He remembers seeing his father almost strangle his mother to death with a coat hanger. Finally, the boy goes to sleep amid the terrible sounds. There is nothing else to do.
Those are images glued to Byron Shewman’s memory like photos in an album, reminders of conduct that have trapped many a boy into a manhood of abuse redux: “Like father, like son.”
Henrik Ibsen said, “To live is to war with trolls.” And every boy who grew up with a mean drunk for a father has had those dark spirits sitting at his breakfast table every morning.
Byron, now 67 and living in Oceanside, relives that childhood every day.
Byron’s father, Dale, was born in 1915 into a threadbare farm family in Iowa. However, back then, living small was the norm. He finished the seventh grade, and that’s all. Even in his teen years, it was clear Dale was a bad seed, as they used to say.
At an early age, he married Bernadine, a girl of similar background from Storm Lake, Iowa. Bernadine was also escaping family grimness. Her father committed suicide when she was a teenager. Today, we might call her a codependent to Dale, but that’s hindsight psychobabble. What is not is that she was deathly afraid of him.
After Dale was kicked out of the Air Force, they made their way to San Diego in 1951, settling down by the border — Castle Park, Otay and ending up in Imperial Beach. They moved from one hovel to another about as often as the landlord demanded the rent.
Dale was a hard worker, usually employed as a farmhand or laborer. However, he was a raging alcoholic and would drink up his paycheck in cheap bars and get into fights. Every job ended with him getting fired. The children knew to be quiet in his presence, or else. To those three kids, Thanksgiving or Christmas did not exist, except for their friends and classmates.
Back in the ’50s and ’60s, police were much more accepting of domestic abuse, often siding with an offending husband. Women knew not to seek outside help on pain of worse beatings. They were prisoners with no appeal.
Despite all his efforts to convince his wife of how miserable and ugly she was, Dale was irrationally jealous of her. He would not let her work or even stray far from the hovel.
I asked Byron what his mother would say to her son when those things happened. How would she explain her husband, his father?
“She had little to say, she was so beaten down. I figured it out for myself. She spent her life in mute surrender and fear. There’s not much to explain about a horribly abusive man, because a normal person can’t find the reason. It was just the way it was.”
Byron was a popular and good student and an excellent athlete, which gave him a pass from bullies who normally circle “white trash” kids like hungry cats. He also developed empathy for minority children who, in some cases, were as bad off as he. That instinct would last through the years.
Not so lucky were his siblings. Byron’s sister suffered from spinal meningitis, which gave her a speech impediment and made her slow in class. Byron’s younger brother was cursed by being smaller and less gifted than Byron.
His sister left home at 14, married a sailor and had four children, all of whom ended up with drug problems. She died at 62. His brother died of a heroin overdose at 50, after Byron had repeatedly placed him in rehab facilities.
Irrational though it might be, Byron still feels guilt over being the smart one, the athletic one, the motivated one. Irrational, yes. Understandable, yes.
Byron finally escaped home in his junior year when a sympathetic clergyman took him into his family. He graduated from Mar Vista High School, went on to Southwestern College, then took a degree at San Diego State University.
Along the way, he became a world-class volleyball player. As such, he was invited to places he had never before seen — La Jolla, Manhattan Beach and the rich coast of Orange County. People with money actually smiled at him. He was allowed into the Technicolor land of Oz.
In rapid succession, he became an English teacher at Mar Vista and married a girl who had grown up on another planet, which means a normal family. They had a son.
Byron was on a team that came within a whisker of qualifying for the Olympic Games in 1972.
He eventually became a pro volleyball player and coach in Europe and discovered Paris. It was not Imperial Beach. He discovered wine, women and — well, wine and women.
Goodbye teaching job and goodbye marriage, the latter a happening that to this day he talks about with soft pain.
Fortunately, unlike his father, he knew when and how to quit. Byron eventually turned away from the sirens along the Seine and returned to San Diego.
At one point in the early days of her marriage, Bernadine certainly would have dreamed of a different life from her own childhood — a caring husband, a respectable home and children who would grow upright and strong. But soon, those dreams would become taunting memories as she sat in some hot (or unheated) shack for hours, with not even a TV, hoping forlornly that her husband would come home sober and not beat her, maybe give her $2 to buy food.
Byron was there: “Wherever we moved, I knew it would be temporary, maybe a flop motel. If it were a house, there would be no furniture. If we stayed more than a few months, the gas and lights would probably be shut off.
“The summer after ninth grade, some drinking buddy of my dad had an old detached garage with a dirt floor. No electricity, no toilet, no water. I remember sleeping on a door I found there, covered with a sheet and blanket.
“We (kids) tried to stay out of sight during the daytime to avoid being seen (by the public). I remember walking to vacation Bible school, praying that God would find a place for us to live besides there. Shortly after, dad got arrested and we were off, running from the law out of state in an old beat-up Studebaker.”
The unending tears ended for Bernadine at age 51, in 1972 on Mother’s Day. A heart attack put her to rest in the pauper’s grave she always predicted for herself. If the dead could cry out their pain, she would be heard.
Dale was drunk at the funeral and told all who would listen how much he had loved his wife.
To this day, Byron can complete little more than a sentence on his mother’s life: “She was a kind, intelligent, beautiful woman who only wanted to be loved and have a life with something other than cruelty, humiliation, dirt and poverty for her children and herself, but she got none of those. …”
He chokes up, and has to change the subject.
“My father’s liver finally gave out at 75 in 1990. The old Mexican wallet I gave him years before had $11 in it. The rest of the family died with less. I was lucky enough to escape (inheriting) the evil in him, and I’ll never understand why.”
Toward the end of Dale’s life, Byron, wanting to understand, asked him to talk about his early life. All the old man could say was that his father had once thrown a brick at him.
One who lives with a drunk usually has to put up with his occasional remorse or hangover-induced self-pity. However, Byron says, “I never heard a word of repentance from my father. I saw him do some shameful things, some which landed him in jail. But he was incapable of saying, ‘I’m sorry.’ Instead, he would react more violently.
“When I was younger, I thought my father was not an evil man, just terribly selfish. But with age, I felt more the suffering he caused his family. A man who would choose to spend every last cent on beer while his family had no food or place to live deserves little sympathy.”
A man like Dale, you can hate him, forgive him or try to forget him. But, except for the self-loathing that had to be in his soul, you will never understand him.
The one positive action that resulted from Dale’s life — and from the lives of those like him — was added impetus for women’s rights to protect victims like Bernadine.
Byron probed for a future in the years after returning from Europe in the ’80s. He had a go at a business, made some money writing and taught English as a second language.
His life found purpose when he started a volleyball program for low-income minority girls, who he felt had traditionally been frozen out of “the elitist sport.” Lincoln High School in southeastern San Diego was the first team of what became Starlings Volleyball Clubs USA, which he now runs full time.
Along the way, he developed a national reputation for developing volleyball among minorities. Over 18 years, 30,000 girls have gone through his program, and more than 300 have gotten college scholarships.
Byron had tapped into something in his heart.
Tuesday, Part II: From abused child to humanitarian.
GREAT AWAKENING AFTER REAL NIGHTMARE
On Monday: Byron Shewman, 67, of Oceanside discussed growing up with a violent, alcoholic father and an abused and debased mother. Today, he tells where that unhappy circumstance led him.
In his own miserable childhood, Byron realized he had a strong instinct to help the disadvantaged. And after years as a professional volleyball player, he made that urge part of his life. He formed a volleyball program to involve minority girls and established a nonprofit group called Youth Without Borders to help poor kids in Tijuana.
When a Mexican woman with whom he worked was close to dead, he was thrown into depression and couldn’t bear to return to Tijuana.
However, a Krakatoa-scale tragedy was about to give him a “Thanks, I needed that” slap.
An earthquake on Jan. 12, 2010, tore Haiti apart. A 7.0-magnitude quake would devastate San Diego, but among the shacks and rickety infrastructure of Haiti, it was the apocalypse. At least a quarter-million people were killed, and the numbers of injured were grains of sand.
Byron joined a physician-friend on a medical mission as one who could speak French, the native tongue of Haiti. In Port-au-Prince, disaster pros who could stare down a tsunami gasped at the extent of the human wreckage. One told him, “Nothing’s ever been like this. Nothing.”
A medieval battlefield didn’t have so many severed limbs. The hospital was in a schoolroom; the beds were mattresses. Byron remembers the child amputees.
“When the morphine would wear off, they would start screaming hysterically. Some of the children, through a pastor I met, I was able to place in families and just paid for their food and schooling. There’s no free education there.”
Were you paying out of your own pocket?
Where did you get the money?
“I don’t make a lot of money, but I had savings, and I don’t have many expenses anymore. It’s a decision I made.”
I push him. How much altogether?
“I’ve put in about $50,000.”
Lying on one of the mattresses was a woman of about 30, weighing less than 100 pounds and standing less than 5 feet tall. She was a teacher-nurse named Edeline Felizor, and she was at death’s door.
Byron’s doctor friend said she had a broken neck, which in Haiti meant she could die with the next breath. First, the doctor said, she needed an X-ray, and the only functional machine was in the Israeli aid compound.
With the help of a Christian mission, they put Edeline on a litter and sent her to the Israelis in the back of a farm truck over roads filled with potholes chasmic in depth. It took three hours to drive 15 miles.
When Byron reached the Israelis with Edeline, he saw an island of efficiency, but the suffering was just as great. “God, I saw this guy preparing to operate on this poor girl, and they haven’t yet given the anesthesia. Her thigh is sticking out and he’s gently pulling the thigh back together. She’s shrieking with pain.
“They take Edeline’s X-ray and come back to me, and they go, ‘My God. We can’t believe she’s alive. She’s a C-1, C-2. Any slight movement on that truck could have easily severed her spinal cord.”
Byron then had Edeline driven to the waterfront and the USNS Comfort, the U.S. Navy hospital ship of 1,000 beds.
“It was ‘Dante’s Inferno.’ The big Navy helicopters are coming in every few minutes, creating wind and dust. I’m sitting there. I saw a girl who had her nose sliced off. It was completely gone.”
Byron is effusive with praise for the Navy medical staff and the Israelis, and believes the two of them should have been running the whole thing. He calls the United Nations effort an inefficient, almost uncaring joke, except that it wasn’t amusing.
After a wait of eight days, Navy surgeons operated on Edeline’s neck and stabilized it.
Finally, a month later, Byron was permitted to bring Edeline and her younger sister, Isemene, to San Diego County. They now live in his house. After four years, Edeline is walking, though she will always have pain. She and her sister are rapidly Americanizing and hoping to become citizens. Both have a driver’s license and have learned English. Both women want to get into some form of nursing work.
Edeline’s recovery was largely made possible by donated, extensive rehab care from Stephanie Hoffman, a La Jolla physical therapist, and Point Loma spine specialist Lee Rice, M.D. Hoffman also helped raise money to continue Byron’s work in Haiti.
At Edeline’s urging, Byron undertook the building of a free school in Haiti to which San Diego developer Dene Oliver has contributed heavily, and which Byron operates under the aegis of his Youth Without Borders organization. The school construction is complete, and there are 120 students. Byron plans to make it operate on about $50,000 per year.
Recently, Dene sent an architect and a project manager with Byron to Haiti to plan a major expansion. Construction is under way for another classroom, solar power grid, irrigated food gardens and recreation area. Also, a library-computer center is on the drawing board.
We can reasonably speculate on what turned Byron, a cruelly abused child, into a man of mercy instead of a prison inmate: experience, genetics, luck, pain — probably all of those. But also something mysterious in the human psyche that will always elude us.
If Byron’s parents could see him now and how he’s served the unfortunate of the earth, who knows what would be in his father’s mind. Byron stopped seeking his approval long ago.
His mother would be proud and could believe her life meant something after all.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
His email is firstname.lastname@example.org
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