The Man Who Hated Kids
By James Edward Pedersen
as printed in Readers Digest September 1994
It's now over 30 years since I saw Fishhead
riding his battered red and white bicycle through the rain-washed streets
of my town. He was a skinny, pathetic figure, unkempt and under-nourished,
with the shifty eyes of a hunted animal. In the many years that we shared
the same neighborhoods, I never saw evidence that he had a single friend.
Fishhead went about his business alone.
In October 1956 my family moved to Port
Alberni, British Columbia, a town of pulp and lumber mills, from Victoria,
the province's capital, after my father lost his contracting business to
recession. And so I exchanged an idyllic five acres of grass and woods for
an old run-down urban home. To my five-year-old mind, though, it wasn't a
bad trade. Within a range of ten square blocks I soon began to prosper by
collecting discarded pop bottles, which were redeemable for two cents each.
For a kid, this was a good living. Five empty bottles equaled a big chocolate
bar, six more meant a bottle of pop.
It was on one of my excursions to the
local "smoke shop," with some money from my parents, that I first saw Fishhead.
Rounding the corner by City Hall at a dead run, I noticed movement in front
of a dilapidated, two-story rooming house. Fishhead was splitting wood in
the driveway while his landlady kept an eye on him from the window. His clothing
was a ragtag assortment: loose, dirty jeans tucked into cheap gumboots, an
undersized tan V-neck sweater over an equally dirty T-shirt, revealing bony
wrists and a recessed stomach.
When I stopped, he dropped his ax and
looked up at me warily. Caved in cheeks and short, dark brown hair, hopelessly
matted, gave him an air of wildness, but mostly it was his eyes, haunted,
sunken and dark, that transfixed me.
I yelled a cheerful "Hi!" and waited
for a response. Instead , he narrowed his eyes and strode purposefully toward
"Get out of here!" he yelled, flailing
his arms. "And stay away!"
Then the landlady joined in. "Why can't
you leave him alone?" she cried from the window. "What's the matter with
I didn't know what she meant and wasn't
about to find out, I took off running. Being a child who was usually eager
to please adults, I was left entirely confused about what I had done to deserve
such a tirade.
Some months later, when I started school,
I made my first friend, Ronald, who had recently moved to town from the
Netherlands. One February afternoon, while Ronald and I were walking home
from the park, a familiar figure whooshed by us on a bike. "Who's that?"
"It's Fishhead," Ronald said, "He hates
kids. My dad says to stay away from him."
"What's the matter with him?" "I think
he's mental or something," Ronald said as we parted, I did learn, though,
that Fishhead collected welfare and that he fished to supplement his income.
Hence his nickname.
Later, as I approached my house, I saw
a fight at the other end of the street. Two of the neighborhood bullies were
laughing and throwing rocks at Fishhead, He just stood there, trying to shield
himself, but holding his ground instead of running.
"Why don't you fight back, yuh big freak!"
To my amazement Fishhead, with his arms
still covering his face, started to walk toward his attackers, Step by step
he narrowed the gap. Then, just as I cringed and braced for the worst, someone
zoomed past me screaming at the bullies to "get out of here, and leave him
It was my mother! The same gentle Icelandic
woman who soothed my hurts and listened to my troubles, I was seeing a new
side of her. Real Viking blood flowed in her veins!
The bullies instantly fled, leaving me
to marvel, open-mouthed. Fishhead dropped his hands and quietly said thank
you to my mother, picked up his bike and began to leave. My mother called
after him, "If those bullies ever bother you again, you just let me or my
husband know and we'll have the police after them."
In the ensuing years I saw Fishhead take
some real beatings from toughs who went into a frenzy when he wouldn't back
down from them. Between kicks and punches, they'd call him "retard" and
It was my misfortune to be different
in a time and place where to be different seemed, to some, unforgivable and
punishable. Fishhead was paying a high price for self-respect and, having
precious little of it myself, I somehow admired him and began to feel sorry
My mother's example and the lessons I
learned in Sunday school began to give me a more enlightened approach to
those who were "different." The parable of the Lost Sheep, in which a shepherd
leaves the ninety and nine in search of one who is lost, had particularly
hit home. I picked Fishhead as my "lost sheep" and resolved to do something
In the spring of my 12th year I found
myself in a precarious social standing with the other seventh-grade boys.
My family was still somewhat poor, and I was always lagging behind in areas
of dress and "things." Certain kids began to make it clear that separation
between them and me was now growing. My athletic abilities were the only
thing keeping me in "the crowd" for the moment. So I abandoned Ronald, my
Dutch friend, for the group of boys I played soccer with.
I also began to see my father in a different
light. Now in his late 50's he had found steady employment as Port Alberni's
city gardener. He had a gift with plants and landscaping that he had brought
with him from his native Denmark. During the late spring and summer, the
city newspaper often carried pictures of the many borders of roses and annuals
he planted and tended along the town's parks and boulevards. I should have
been proud of him, but I wasn't. I even hated walking into town with my dad.
His dirty work clothes embarrassed me. I envied, instead, the boys in "the
crowd" whose young, prosperous-looking parents represented the elite of our
The inner circle of my soccer crowd consisted
of three boys. Ken was our fastest runner and a tough competitor. Wayne was
the youngest son of our family's doctor, our best soccer player and probably
the most popular boy in our school. Gordie had moved to town from Vancouver,
He had expensive, stylish clothes and grownup-sounding stories about girls
that impressed the other, less experienced boys.
Before seventh grade I had been the second
fastest runner after Ken and one of the better soccer players. Gordie, however,
was not only faster but much better at sports than I. Within the crowd, he
quickly and easily supplanted me, and the less dominant boys subtly began
to move against me.
One sunny afternoon, I heard a thumping
on our back steps followed by a firm knock. My mother, who was preparing
dinner, answered the door with a friendly "Well, hello there!"
A slightly familiar voice said haltingly,
"I've got a couple of fresh cod here. It's 50 cents a fillet. You
"You don't have to fillet them for us,
but I'll buy them from you," my mother answered , obviously pleased at the
"No , I always fillet the cod," the voice
said firmly. "My fish are fresh caught and filleted. It's how I beat the
Curious, I went through the door-way
between our living room and kitchen to get a closer look. It was Fishhead.
Immediately on seeing me his eyes flew to my mother. She told me gently but
firmly to go back and watch TV. I raised the volume on the set slightly and
spent the next 20 minutes with my ear to the kitchen door.
"What's your name?" my mother asked in
her friendly way as she went about fixing our supper.
"Where did you catch these? They're
"Down the inlet," he said with mounting
pleasure. "I know a few good spots near the mouth of China Creek. I fish
over a mile down from the closest mill," he said, reassuring her that the
waters there weren't polluted.
Fishhead didn't sound retarded; he sounded
friendly and reasonable. He then volunteered something that made my heart
jump. "I hope you don't mind about your son; it's nothing personal. I just
don't like kids. They bother me a lot.
"He'll never bother you," I heard my
mother say. "He's not that way."
A few minutes later the crushing of
newspapers announced that Fishhead had completed his sale. After that he
returned at least once a week through the entire summer. He had cod for homemade
fish and chips, and cod fillets dipped in bread crumbs and fried, even salmon
for company on Sundays.
On the afternoons when he came, I began
to worm my way into the relationship between Fishhead and my mother. I'd
say "Hi!" and retreat into the living room. My mother glared at me when I
did this, but I felt the quest was religious enough to transcend her displeasure.
Fishhead completely ignored me.
Nevertheless, every time he passed me
on his bike now, I yelled out "Hi, Bob!" and smiled. He usually glared at
me. I took some ribbing from my friends for this, but I felt it showed him
Then, without warning, Fishhead stopped
coming to our house. It was evident that, for all my efforts, I had failed
to overcome his fear and suspicion.
As the warm days of summer ended, schoolwork
and soccer occupied most of my time. But some of the boys with whom I had
shared the field of sport as an equal now collectively zeroed in on my
self-consciousness over my family's lack of material means. They sneered
at our car, the beat-up '54 turquoise -and-white Chevy Bel Air. They ridiculed
my cheap and unfashionable clothes.
Late one fall afternoon, after a game
of touch football at the park, I tagged along as the group headed home up
the Seventh Avenue hill. Running for a ball that had been purposely thrown
into someone's yard. I was the last to see him come up from behind.
"Hey, what's that smell?" Wayne yelled
out, "Could it be . . .fish?"
They were laughing at one another's
As Fishhead tried to walk his bike up
the hill he was surrounded. My friends began to run plays around him, knocking
into him on purpose, bouncing the ball off the back of his head, and pushing
at his bike from behind. Grimly, wordlessly, Fishhead plodded on.
Gordie began running backward in front
of him, throwing small rocks at his feet. I remained behind, quietly hoping
Fishhead would get on his bike and leave. The others must have noticed. Suddenly,
the dominant voice of Ken boomed over them all, "Hey, he smells like . .
Then, as though rehearsed, they turned
their eyes to exactly the same spot. To me. Ken's taunt generated the biggest
laugh of all. Flushed with embarrassment, I tried to smile bravely, My heart
sank deeper as I saw their self-satisfied smiles.
"Why don't you go play with your friend?
A few others agreed . "Yeah, you both
smell the same!"
Again, laughter. My world was falling
apart. I had thrown in my lot with this group, and now they were rejecting
me. My mind was racing for something, anything, that would save me. Finally,
Fishhead had stopped to catch his breath.
Our eyes met and locked. For the first time, I saw in his expression a faint
glimmer of recognition, a commonality, an offering, an opening.
But at that moment I hated him. I hated
him almost as much as I hated myself. I started screaming at him. I called
him every hateful name I could think of.
Moments later, spent, I turned to my
friends for their reassurance and approval. I needed desperately to know
I was still one of them. But they were already up the road, heading down
the alleys and side streets to their homes. They hadn't even bothered to
witness my performance.
Ashamed, I turned back to Fishhead. He
just stood and stared at me. I lowered my eyes to the ground. I was appalled
at what I had done. He said nothing, and after a few moments, without taking
his eyes off me, he climbed quietly onto his bike and left, leaving me standing
on the street alone, with nowhere to run.
I wandered around the neighborhood until
headlights shone on me from behind, and I recognized our old Chevy.
"Do you know what time it is?" I heard
the irritated Danish accent of my father. "I've been driving around for a
half-hour looking for you!"
Without answering, I opened the door
and climbed onto the front seat, vainly wiping at my tear-stained face. Even
in the darkness, he could tell something out of the ordinary was wrong. "What
happened to you?" he asked, his voice slowly giving way to his concern. "Were
you in a fight? Did someone hurt you?"
"No" was all I could muster.
"Why don't you tell me what happened?"
he pressed me, the edge to his voice disappearing.
After a few moments of embarrassed silence
I poured out all my frustrations about our home, our car, about how some
of the boys had ganged up and abandoned me that night, changing the story
just enough to avoid having to explain my behavior toward Fishhead.
"I know you've been unhappy for some
time now." my father said, as he started the car. "You've wanted us to be
something we're not."
I felt myself flushing with shame.
"We're not as well-to-do as some of your
friends, but we own our house. We own our car. I have a good job. A lot of
people have it worse. You should be thankful for who you are and the things
you do have. You should be thankful you belong to a family who loves you.
He stopped for a few moments while making
a turn, then continued, his voice becoming more emphatic. "But even though
we love you, we can't make you happy. Only you can do that." Although I didn't
like hearing it, I knew he was right.
My dad's words had cut me to the quick.
If I couldn't accept myself for who I was, I certainly had no right to expect
other to accept me either.
During the ensuing months I weaned myself
away from the crowd. My friend Ronald, in that quiet, unobtrusive way confined
to boys of this age, took me back without an accusing word.
With Fishhead, I left it open. I never
approached him to apologize for what I had done. Instead, I decided to honor
the only request he had ever made of me - to leave him alone.
Thirty years later, my images of him
are frozen in time, and although most of Fishhead's story remains shrouded
in mystery, his life did touch mine in a very special way. Thinking of him,
I wonder about the cruelty that lies just under the surface of human
associations, and the courage it takes to rise above the impulse to please
and be one with the crowd. I marvel at my mother's courage am my father's
simple honesty and thankfulness. Most of all I wonder about God's lonely
misfits - the lost sheep out of hundreds for whom he is searching.
When I've occasionally visited the old
haunts in Port Alberni, I've watched for him to ride by, fishing rods, gunnysacks
and all. I'd like to wave him over now, walk the neighborhoods with him as
two adults, and just talk . . . about everything.