I was just 15.
It was 1976. I was a Hell raiser as much as I could be. I never thought I treated anyone with disrespect, but early that Summer I had a party at my mother’s home – aided and abetted by a friendly neighbor who bought us some “Boones Farm Strawberry Hill,” wine, vodka and orange juice. Everything went well until one of the guests got sick and puked up spaghetti on my mother’s shag carpet.
It was then she discovered the punch and orange juice was more than advertised and the party ended with my mother saying I had disrespected her.
The idea for the party came that Spring when a few friends and I paid to wade through the infield of the Kentucky Derby and share libations with thousands of other scantily-clad teens. I watched Bold Forbes, ridden by Angel Cordero Jr. beat the horse I liked – Honest Pleasure.
We were not a rich family. We were strictly middle class. My parents were divorced and I made money working at my cousin’s printing shop and by whatever other means I could find inside the law – and on one occasion outside of it. That Summer I drove my mother’s car without her knowledge to Tennessee, a three hour drive, to visit an all-night fireworks stand and purchase fireworks that were illegal in Louisville for sale to my friends for the coming Bicentennial celebration.
I know I was only 15 and it was illegal for me to drive – a fact of which a local police officer in Shepherdsville reminded me when he stopped me and my 12-year-old brother who had come along for the ride. After citing me for having a tail light out, I had the pleasure of waiting in a Sheriff’s office until my mother showed up to reclaim her impounded car. A judge told me if I got caught driving one more time before my 16th birthday I would have to wait until I was 18 to get my license. I was more worried about the money I faced losing from the advanced orders I took for fireworks and was happy to find out no one ever popped the trunk and took out the booty which enabled me to pay my mother’s towing bill and still make a healthy profit on my bootleg fireworks trip.
I was also a football player, and a Catholic altar boy. While I didn’t go to a private Catholic school, mom being too strapped to afford it, many of the more entitled kids I grew up with at St. Pius X Catholic Church did go to those schools. The older high school kids at those schools had plenty of alcohol parties, with marijuana and the opposite sex. “If a girl tells you ‘No’ that really means yes,” I was told. As I had once witnessed my mother being sexually harassed by one of her bosses I knew damn well that was a lie. My father also rammed the idea of being a gentleman down my throat so much that if any girl said “No” to me then I took her at her word.
Therefore my sex life was mostly hypothetical in 1976. I liked girls, but I also had a healthy interest in airplanes, camping and rock music. It would be at least another year before I put all of those interests together. In 1976 I explored and worked at WAKY radio that summer as a news intern. WAKY was the real WKRP in Cincinnati and was one of the Kings of AM radio in the Midwest. Rock stars routinely visited the variety of over-the-top characters who worked there. It was a summer of red, white and blue, yellow happy faces and a chance for me to realize a few dreams.
To further my goals I connected with one of the employees of the radio station who was a pilot and skydiver. Although you had to be 16 to jump out of an airplane, I broke that rule too – skydiving for the first time that summer with the assistance of a cabal of skydivers I befriended in Richmond, KY at Lackey International airport – a grass strip rural airport that reputedly gained the name “International Airport” because a guy flying a V-tailed Bonanza out of Canada mistakenly landed there once. I later wrote about this in my high school newspaper.
At the end of that Summer, a few weeks before school was to start I traveled to Richmond again. I was taking flying lessons, jumping out of planes and having fun. My mother, finding I had found a mentor who was channeling my youthful exuberance into something other than questionable teen parties had no problem allowing me to spend the weekends in Richmond – some two hours away. I didn’t mind it either. Dad wasn’t around much – he was remarried and spent most of the time with his new wife and her children.
I didn’t spend too much time mooning over that. I got to get away on the weekends most of the summer – away from my two younger sisters whom I found incredibly cloying, and my younger brother who was busy playing basketball with his friends – a national pastime in Kentucky of sorts and one that I only enjoyed on an occasion.
Spending time in Richmond meant spending the night with my mentor at his parent’s home. His parents were nice enough, though aloof and welcomed me into their home.
What was not to love? I was learning to fly airplanes, jump out of them and I listened to the best rock n’ roll on the radio and went to free concerts. I was in heaven. Best summer ever.
One of the last weekends of the summer I crawled up to sleep on the same couch that had become my bed for at least a half-a-dozen weekends and fell asleep in my boxers, socks and t-shirt. At the time I was a very sound sleeper. My mom used to joke that the house could explode and I’d sleep through it. I used to tell her if the house exploded it would probably kill me and who would know? But logic doesn’t apply in the world of mothers and often it doesn’t apply elsewhere either.
I found that out the hard way. I woke to feel someone fondling me in a manner I had previously only experienced once with one girlfriend and by myself more frequently.
Startled, I opened my eyes to find my 30-year-old surrogate big brother. Even at the age of 15 my “fight or flight” instinct tilted more toward the “fight” end of the spectrum so I jumped up and swung – catching him on a glancing blow to the neck.
I retreated to a corner of the room and picked up a lamp as defense. I cried. I wanted to bash his head in. He apologized and said I had mistaken his actions. I didn’t buy it and insisted he drive me back home. He agreed only after I threatened to scream loud enough to wake his parents. I spent that ride with fists clinched, staring and refusing to speak even when spoken to. I seethed with anger. But above the anger was the fear. I didn’t feel safe.
Two hours later I found my mom in the kitchen drinking her morning coffee. When she asked me why I didn’t spend the weekend in Richmond I told her the place was socked-in because of weather.
I was just 15.
What happened to me was so outside of my realm of experience that at first I couldn’t even get a handle on what angered me most. I couldn’t process it. I didn’t feel like a victim. I felt like I had prevented myself from becoming a victim. I had my trust betrayed. I didn’t understand why anyone would treat me that way. The guy had pretended to be my friend. I knew him – or thought I did. Did I somehow encourage it unknowingly? Was I guilty of doing something wrong? What the Hell did he think he was doing? He had some nerve. What would my friends think? My family? I tried to talk to my mother about it, I couldn’t. I never tried to talk to my father about it. Considering the temper I had witnessed in him at appropriate times, I figured a murder charge on his rap sheet wouldn’t be a good thing. I never once considered filing criminal charges against the guy. My mom thought he was a friend. My parents would’ve freaked out. My friends and family would’ve done the same and considering where I grew up I knew I’d be accused of a variety of nefarious things.
And I just couldn’t stop thinking about how I cried, how ashamed I was of crying and how I shivered in fear – unlike anything I’d ever experienced. In trying to find a positive outcome to this humiliating experience it prepared me for a variety of threats I’ve faced since then and gave me the ability to face them more stoically and more prepared than had this not happened.
So, I tried to move on. I forgot some of the details and I figured at the time while it was an extremely compromising and painful experience, I would endeavor to make sure I never was in a similar situation in the future. Partly as a result of this I have never been a sound sleeper since that day. I did confront the man a few years later when I was in college and asked him why? When he told me through tears he wanted to stick a middle finger at society’s conventions I laughed and told him that was fine – but he tried to use another human being to accomplish that goal – me- and he had no right to do that.
He died alone in a small plane crash as the pilot a short time after that. I never knew if he had tried that same act with others and I never knew what in the name of God was wrong with him or what conventions of society he wished to overturn. Due to some of the strange vibes I got from his parents I wondered if he had been abused – but I never found out anything more.
The next time I would talk to anyone about the incident would be to my wife after we had been married for a few years.
I told her the incident made me feel vulnerable. It scared me because I realized I couldn’t control my world. It didn’t make me question who I was, but rather it made me understand just how easily people can be victimized, frightened and abused and how a person can be seemingly friendly, trustworthy and likeable in one moment and a predator in the next.
That shook me more than anything else. Over the years I’ve seen that behavior in dozens if not hundreds of criminals, including serial killers and serial rapists as I’ve covered crime and politics. Because of what happened to me, I have at times struggled to overcome an inherent bias against accused criminals when I’ve had to cover sexual predator stories.
I have covered the worst people can do to one another. I have seen hundreds of dead bodies, watched people die in front of me and interviewed the criminals who committed the most atrocious acts. I’ve seen how a criminal’s fear and vulnerability also leads to a scarring and that fear and those emotional scars lead to victimizing others. And I learned that this can be the worst kind of evil and that it often hides in the open.
I’ve never written about this incident, but something President Trump tweeted recently compelled me to try and write about it. So, perhaps I should thank the president for making me confront something I long ago put to rest and thought I had resolved but did not. The president tweeted in part . . . “I have no doubt that, if the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed with local Law Enforcement Authorities by either her or her loving parents.”
Dr. Ford was 15. I was 15. The president’s tweet dripped of condescension, privilege and power judging those who do not have power. And it speaks volumes to an inability to understand this situation.
Still, I did not want to publish what I’d written. I didn’t want to be seen as piling on, or taking advantage of the situation to ease my own burden. Doubt stays with you.
If the man who attempted to molest me were sitting at the threshold of being a Supreme Court Justice for life instead of being dead would I have the courage to step forward and say something?
I do not know Kavanaugh or Dr. Ford. But Dr. Ford deserves to have her allegations investigated. The president may believe there are nefarious reasons for not reporting the crime when it occurred but that’s because of his privilege and power having never been stripped from him as it has from others.
Both the Republicans and Democrats have pushed this issue for political reasons and while I agree with the Democrats who want to delay the Supreme Court process until the issue is fully investigated I remain unconvinced that if the shoe were on the other foot and the Republicans were pushing to delay a Democratic vote that a majority of Democrats would agree to do so. I hope I’m wrong.
But in so much that a group of privileged, aging white men are poised to push through a vote on another privileged white man for a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court, it behooves all of us to slow the process down and keep a thick cloud of rancor and divisiveness from coalescing over this process.
Lost in the process is a woman with the courage to come forward. Thirty six years later or yesterday it matters not. It is important that we listen to her.
What finally made me want to publish my thoughts on this matter was watching Don Lemon on CNN last Monday night. Don went through something similar and talked about it on television. I’ve only mentioned it publicly once, briefly and in passing, and never explained what I went through.
That was a mistake.
Those in power, whoever they may be and whether it is the power of a privileged teen at a typical drunken party, the power of a mentor over an adolescent or the power of the president over everyone else – no one should have the power to do what was done to me or anyone else. That kind of predator thrives in the darkness. It’s tough enough being the prey. It’s tougher bringing the issue out into the light and having to confront all of the repressed feelings yet again. It takes a courage many do not have, but Dr. Ford does have it.
We all owe it to each other to treat each other with far more respect. I do not know how the human species can continue to exist if we do not learn everyone deserves to be treated with respect, no one deserves to be degraded and defiled, and when someone steps forward who makes the claims Dr. Ford has made we should all stop, look and listen.