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 me.
      "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 you kids?"
      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?" I whispered.
      "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!" they taunted.
      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 alone!"
      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 "weirdo."
      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 for him.
      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 about him.

      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 community.
      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 interested?"
      "You don't have to fillet them for us, but I'll buy them from you," my mother answered , obviously pleased at the bargain.
      "No , I always fillet the cod," the voice said firmly. "My fish are fresh caught and filleted. It's how I beat the stores."
      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 beautiful!"
      "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 my sincerity.
      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 cleverness.
      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 . . . "
      Everyone stopped.
      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? Gordie jeered.
      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, I turned.
      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.

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