Winters in northern Missouri hill country can be downright frigid.
As I stood at the end of the driveway on weekday mornings waiting for the school bus, I’d stomp my feet and pull my wool cap on tight to ward off the biting cold.
We lived two miles outside of town on a plot bordered by thick woods on one side and a vacant lot covered with weeds and a lush clover field on the other. Our nearest neighbors were hog farmers, just up the road, hidden in a maze of pine and birch trees. During the summer, when the wind was right, I could smell the hogs.
Our place was a secluded spot. I think my stepfather planned it that way. It allowed what went on behind closed doors to remain isolated from the rest of the world. I didn’t know anything about the lifelong impact of childhood abuse and trauma at the time, or even the term “domestic violence.” I was a kid, taught to mind my manners, speak when spoken to and do what I was told.
My only friend in the world was my Boxer dog, Kokomo. He lived in a pen on the hill at the back of the property. I’d look his way on my trek down the driveway to wait for the bus.
On cold mornings, Kokomo would be hunkered down in his little, red doghouse. He’d be in there until the bus dropped me off in the late afternoon. By then he was ready to get out of that cage, ready to welcome me home.
Kokomo and I would take long walks in the summer through the woods and down to the Grand River. On one excursion, we ran headlong into a wild boar. My dog stood nose-to-nose with that beast; I knew he’d die in a blood battle before he’d let it get to me. I was screaming at the top of my lungs, trying to get Kokomo to back off. When he turned to see what I was hollering about, the boar spun on its heels and dashed away.
Another time, I built a homemade raft and launched it into the river. My dog was smarter than me. He jumped ship before the raft was dismantled by the current. He was standing on the bank looking back at me by the time I hauled myself out of the muddy water and back to shore.
The school bus was my social playground. It was filled with country kids of all sorts. In the mornings, the bus ride was quiet and sullen as we headed toward a day of study and strain, but the ride home was raucous. Everybody was finally freed from the attention of stern schoolteachers and eager to get home to whatever awaited them.
I had an hour-and-a-half before the folks got home from work. That was my time, mine and Kokomo’s anyway. If I wasn’t there letting him out of that cage when I got off the bus, I’d hear him bark. I couldn’t blame him. I could only imagine what it was like to be locked up in a cage all day long.
By the time I turned 13 years old, my folks sent me to live with a distant aunt and uncle. My mom told me it was because she was afraid my stepfather was going to kill me.
By seventh grade I wasn’t as compliant toward the constant abuse as I’d been as a pre-teen. But I was glad to be out of that situation — except I missed Kokomo.
Years later, I was on another bus, heading toward a cage of my own. It was an especially gloomy day and I found myself thinking about those old times: riding that bumpy school bus and the long walks in the woods. Those bittersweet memories were as deep and scarred as a prison tattoo.
As we rolled up to the entrance of Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, Calif., I leaned my head against the cool Plexiglass, and thought about Kokomo.
How many days did he stand there in that cage, watching the school bus pass by without stopping? How many days, weeks, months or years did he wait for me to come running up the hill?
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.