When I was a young child, the tagline for the convenience store, 7-11, was, “Oh, thank Heaven for 7-11!”
It was a catchy little phrase. I mean, how could you not be thankful to a Higher Power for Slurpees, Big Gulps, and hot dogs that roll listlessly like logs in a river’s current? Little did I know that a 7-11 in my one-stoplight-town in Virginia on a cold March night in 1980 would play such an important role in my life. But for any of that to make sense, I need to back up a bit.
A few weeks before my rendezvous with fate at the 7-11, I had been standing in my elementary school principal’s office. No, I wasn’t in trouble (but I DO remember that enormous paddle riddled with holes hanging on his wall!!). I was called down to Mr. Rexrode’s office for another reason. Earlier in the day, my first-grade teacher had noticed something about me. He had caught sight of some bruises—the purple/black marks on my face that didn’t seem normal. I can’t say that I have a crystal-clear memory of this, but I vaguely remember him asking me how I got them. I probably said something like, “From my dad.” The events that would change my life forever were set into motion.
Back to that little boy standing in the middle of the principal’s office. I stood sheepishly in front of Mr. Rexrode’s large wooden desk as he sat behind it with a look of concern in his eyes. To the side of the room stood the School Nurse, quietly observing the situation before her. If there was another soul in that elementary school office, I couldn’t tell you. Mr. Rexrode, a middle-aged, balding man whom I trusted to be a decent person, asked me to take down my pants. Slowly, I complied. My small fingers clumsily unfastened the button and zipper, letting my trousers fall to the floor. I don’t remember being embarrassed, but I can recall being a timid child standing there with stick-like legs covered in the tell-tale signs of abuse. The bruising told the story of the previous eight months that I had been living with my parents. I never knew what kind of physical or mental torture I would have to endure on a nightly basis in the small apartment I called “home.” What I did know was that I missed my grandparents, who had lovingly raised me until the age of six. I also knew there was something wrong with my parents. And I guess, subconsciously, I knew I had to get out of that nightmare. So, I threw my parents under the bus. But getting hit by a bus every night had gotten to be too much. I guess I was simply doing what I needed to…SURVIVE.
In the days that followed, I learned quickly what a Social Worker is. I spent a great deal of time with him. My parents must have been talking to him as well. I had no idea what was going on “behind the scenes.”
It wasn’t long after I was standing in front of the principal with my pants around my ankles that I was being told to grab any items that were important to me. After being with them for eight months, I was leaving my parents.
A small bag of clothing was quickly scrounged together. I picked up my one prized possession—a light brown teddy bear with dark brown glass eyes and arms and legs that swiveled. Carrying very little, I walked out the front door of that apartment for the very last time.
It was already dark outside.
The late winter air was frigid as I climbed into the passenger seat of my Social Worker’s car. Then, we drove away.
I could say that it was a long, silent three-hour ride where I sat worried and nervously anticipated what lay ahead. But in actuality, it was less than a five-minute drive. We turned left at that one stoplight, followed by another left into the 7-11 parking lot. The car slowly slid into a parking space. To my right, out the passenger side window that was partly fogged up, I noticed a green vehicle that looked something like a jeep. The driver’s- side door of the jeep-like car opened and a lumberjack of a man emerged from within. After some muffled conversation in the cold between my Social Worker and the lumberjack, my car door was opened. Gripping my teddy bear tightly, I was formally introduced to John. John was to be my new father. After a few quick “goodbyes,” I climbed up into the passenger seat of the green truck/car/jeep thing and sat next to the complete stranger who would go on to become the greatest man and influence in my life.
As we carefully backed out of the parking spot, the light of the 7-11 sign reflecting on the windshield, a sense of relief washed over me as I thought to myself, “Oh, thank Heaven.”