One line can change everything

I feared a fickle God and my son feared OJ Simpson.

I grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey with my formative years in the late 70’s and early 80’s. There were many dudes who lived in my ‘hood and they were all older than me. Our days were spent playing football and baseball with creative offshoots of both included.

One fun little game was aptly named Kill the Guy with the Ball and it was just that. Actually that was the alternate name if I’m being honest. It was really known as Smear the Queer. That name didn’t phase us in ’82. Neither did the word faggot. I’m not looking to be absolved 36 years later and I’m not selling it as boys will be boys. It’s simply the truth and I’m thrilled that most of us have evolved. Key word being most. A quick Facebook profile scan can tell you so much all these years later.

The game was this: throw the football up in the air and whoever grabs it is immediately tackled by everyone else. Once tackled, preferably violently, that individual then tossed the ball in the air and the carnage would continue. The game usually ended after an injury was sustained.

While I was younger than all of the other combatants, I was athletic enough to hang. I don’t remember a choice of playing or not. If you wanted to be part of the crew, you played without hesitation. So I did. And I loved it. I gained confidence at a young age solely through my ability to remain athletically competitive with the older kids.

But my age difference was a factor when it came to non-sporting activities.

When it was time to steal smokes from a parent and head to the “path” at the end of the street to indulge, I wasn’t invited. When a certain type of magazine was miraculously unearthed, I wasn’t offered the opportunity to read it in the treehouse. If it was time to “make out” with the young ladies in our hood, I knew my place. That place was not with them. I couldn’t hurt their Oak Avenue cred.

And did these dudes ever love to fill my head with details on the inner workings of life. My mother’s birds and bees speech was quickly expunged after the brutal detail were shared with prepubescent me. I couldn’t show any reaction other than “I knew that shit already, yo” although I don’t remember if “yo” was a part of the lexicon back in ’81.

But that little life tidbit didn’t impact me as much as another one that was thrust upon me at that same time. It may have been a stupid throwaway comment by an idiotic 11 year-old, but it shook me to my core. I couldn’t shake it. I was afraid to pull my parents in so they could refute it because I was terrified that they wouldn’t refute it.

If this was true, I was done for life.

When you die, a drum just keeps beating for eternity.

Kill me now.

I was already a mess when it came to God and religion and this only added to my hysteria. I couldn’t shake the image of fire, dragons and a giant expressionless being banging a gong.

I eventually relented out of desperation and asked my parents for clarification. If I recall correctly, the eternal drumming was addressed but it opened up all of my fears of death, heaven and especially the bad place down in the center of the earth.

I had assumed there was this being hanging in the clouds with a lightning bolt in one hand and a book of who was sinning in the other. He made all the decisions and if he felt like it, he could end it all for me and send me south with the flip of switch.

The idea of an all-controlling lord was horrifying.

Why was this old man allowing death to come for some, while others were spared? It all felt too random and that kept me up at night. He has a plan we were reminded in church every Sunday. He has his reasons. Really? I’m supposed to function with that as life’s main tenet?

At some point there was a car ride with the family where I was sitting in the middle of the back set, sans seat belt, with my head lodged up front, listening to every detail of the conversation between my mother and father. I was nosy like that. I ate up all the town and family gossip. I still do.

The conversation turned to religion, my ears perked up and my father delivered the following:

“I don’t believe God decides what happens, he is just there to support us along the way.”

Mind blown.

Boy relieved.

I would be fine from that point forward.

“Jack, I promise you, O.J. doesn’t live anywhere near here.”

I never imagined those words leaving my mouth. But they did on more than one occasion when my son was young.

It started with a simple recounting of the O.J. story from years before. I think my wife and I were sharing where we were when O.J. took off in the infamous white Bronco and where we were when the verdict of not guilty was broadcast to the world with the biggest thud of “what?” I had ever experienced up until that point. I probably dove into the some of the lurid details of the actual murders as well.

Little Jack was listening intently. He always did and still does. Absolutely nothing gets by him.

OJ scared the crap out of my son. It was his first exposure to the real world. It was not The Wiggles and the story wasn’t covered on The Disney Channel. As far as my son knew, OJ Simpson was out prowling in the night somewhere in town. I found it hilarious that he feared that big bad O.J. would hunt down our family.

But those concerned big eyes told a different story. He was legitimately frightened. How would he know that the odds of The Juice coming for us were nil?

I assumed my repeating of “We’re safe from OJ” would be sufficient and he could move on. I assumed all of the joking about his Orenthal James Simpson fear wouldn’t bother him and would allow him to realize his fears were unfounded.

But none of it helped.

He wanted more and he deserved more. This was too much to throw onto the back of a sensitive five year old boy. He needed comfort to know he was safe. It wasn’t about OJ, it was about this big bad world and all the crazies that inhabit it.

He needed the same answers that I required decades earlier. It took me stepping back in time to fully grasp what my role as parent and protector needed to be.

I needed to be my father.

“Jack trust me, OJ is under police surveillance 24 hours a day. He’s not allowed to go anywhere in this world without being watched.”

We never discussed again.