The Chaos Between Us

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The Callahans didn’t go to my Catholic grade school. 

I never saw them in church, and they didn’t live in what I thought was a real house (they lived in a row house).   I knew they’d stolen bags of potato chips from our corner store.  I’d often heard them swear (just to hear the sound of a swear word) and then laugh about it.  Peetie and Frankie, the two Callahans who were my age called their dad “my old man,” and I thought they were daring — perhaps even dangerous —  because of all of these things, but in some way, they were my heroes. I didn’t do the things they did, but that family, those brothers, were electric to me.   We lived six houses apart, were almost the same age, rode bikes together, played ball in the alley, hung out in garages, and climbed “Old Faithful” (our favorite tree).  Peetie and Frankie were like me, but they weren’t.  And the thing that really separated us was their dad, Mr. Callahan, because that guy scared me. 

Frankie and Peetie’s dad was a slight, wiry man with a tight crew cut.  What he lacked in physical prowess, he made up for in rage.  I’d seen the quick rise of it with his sons, felt its sting not meant for me, and it made me fearful for Frankie and Peetie.   He was also the janitor at the neighborhood grade school, and we rode our bikes around the flagpole there, which sat in the middle of an asphalt courtyard in back of the school.  The flagpole itself was mammoth, like a skyscraper (to my 8-year-old self) and fully eight feet in diameter at its base with a small graded mound surrounding it.  All the kids rode their bikes close to it, riding in lazy or furious circles, always close, dragging our feet as we leaned into the tightening curve. Something so big, a towering piece of metal holding a massive flag with us circling around it, boy satellites in orbit.    

One day a gang of us boys were riding our bicycles around the school yard, and I saw Mr. Callahan, inside the school working on a summer afternoon, pop his head out of a second story window and peer down at us. In that moment of summer ease, Frankie Callahan looked up and yelled out to his dad, “Hi Dad, hi Dad”, and in doing so paid no attention to where he was riding, which was, sadly, straight and hard into the giant flagpole.  

Smash and crunch and in an instant there lay Frankie, writhing in pain on the pavement, crying like a child for all of us to see, his blue bike broken and twisted, and us kids standing over him awkward and unsure, studying his pain.  And then, running down the concrete steps of the school and coming at us was Mr. Callahan.  He’s come to help! I thought. Mr. Callahan will know what to do.  Only he didn’t.   Instead of helping Frankie or comforting him, Mr. Callahan kicked Frankie - three, four, five times - hard, tight kicks to the stomach and chest, screaming at him for being so careless. “I’ll not buy you another!” he shrieked, leaning in close to land a few choice blows. And then there was silence, and shame, and the few boys who had witnessed this sadness scattered quickly, riding off to leave Frankie alone with his bad dad. 

That was chaos to me.

Shocking, out of control, unexpected, the opposite of what I had thought the proper response to be.  And I remember that day, because that’s when I learned what chaos is — expecting one reaction, tried and true, and receiving the reverse.  

As a man, I know my own chaos all too well.  Like the veins on my hands, I’m familiar with its ugly terrain of anger and resentment and how it swallows me up, at times creating in me my own brand of sadness and shame.  God forgive me.  To be witness to that chaos as a boy and then to repeat it in my own life speaks to the depravity of sin.  I do the things I don’t want to do, again and again and again.  My chaos, like a tattoo on my tongue and heart. 

And still, I know that God is love. 

He is not chaos.  A God of surprises, but faithful always and a comfort in times of trouble.  

As a father, when I lash out at my sons I often think of Mr. Callahan.  I think, Well at least I’ve never kicked or beaten them, small comfort as that is.  But still, Mr. Callahan and I - most men perhaps - all share that ugly slice of anger fused deep in our souls.  Some act on it more than others, but there it is regardless. I’ve been guilty of perpetuating my own chaos, and I confess it Lord — help me, forgive me. 

There once was a boy on a blue bicycle waving to his dad, and then a second later that boy was being beaten on the pavement. Forgive me Father, let Your peace come upon me. Surely chaos will be with me, but each day in prayer I come before You asking for a renewal of heart and mind.  The world is chaos - but Christ is peace.  Let us have that with first breath, and last. Amen.  

John HallComment