Towels Pressing Down On My Face

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(Author’s note: The following article is a true story. It is also a very rough story. I have struggled with whether I should share it on a website such as ours. After much deliberation I have decided to do so. One of the reasons is that I’ve made a promise to myself to write only what I have experienced, realizing I know only what I experience. The following is what I know to be true, because I experienced it directly, and I continue to recall it to this day. I believe it has relevance to the challenges we face today.)

As he pressed the towels down on my face, I began to squirm to free myself, but his grip on the towels did not loosen. Then I began to swing my arms and kick my feet frantically to try and get out from under the towels, but to no avail. The hands holding the towels on my face did not budge.

Then a voice said, “Leave him alone, he was stabbed in the butt with a pencil today.” Then the guy holding me down started laughing and let his hands go. I quickly took the towels off my face, and jumped up from the pile of towels that I was lying on.

Before that day, I had never seen the person who was doing this to me. But my memory of him was to stick with me the rest of my life. John Lawrence Miller was a ninth grader attending Leland Stanford Junior High School in Long Beach, California in the fall of 1956. For some reason he found himself in the towel cage of the boys’ locker room where I had this experience with him.

Stabbed With a Pencil

During fifth period, earlier that same day, I was attending my “general music” class at Stanford Jr. High School. I was sitting on the back row with my buddy Richard Williams. We were seventh graders and had been in school a little over a month. Our teacher, Mr. Goodwin, had just started playing a piece of classical music on the record player, and wanted us to write down our impressions of the music as we listened to it. I knew how my parents felt when Elvis Presley sang. But beyond that, I wasn’t quite sure what the word “impression” meant.

Not more than a minute into the music, Richard and I started playing pencil tag, which is you would get a point for every time you would strike and put a pencil mark on the other guy’s arm. We had both sharpened our pencils for the game. I swiped at Richard’s arm and missed it. But I did hit his leg and broke the lead tip of my pencil. I hurried up to the front of the room where the pencil sharpener was, ground the lead down to a fine point, and walked back to my seat. As I sat down, I felt a sharp instrument enter the right cheek of my rump. I immediately fell to the ground and started groaning. Mr. Goodwin quickly came to my aid. “Oh, my god, what happened? Leave it alone, leave it alone,” he yelled out.

Angrily, he demanded to know who had “stabbed” me with the pencil.

A voice could be heard saying, “Richard did it.” Mr. Goodwin angrily turned to Richard and asked, “Richard, did you stab him with that pencil?” “Yes,” Richard answered in a low frightened voice. Mr. Goodwin then helped me to my feet, held my arm, and started walking me toward the door. As he did he turned his head back and said, “Richard you’re coming with us.” Mr. Goodwin first took me to the nurse’s office, and then took Richard to the vice principal’s office. I still had the pencil stuck in me. I’m not quite sure how far in it went, maybe an inch. Anyway, it was deep enough to warrant the nurse calling a doctor. Evidently, there was nothing life threatening, because after the call the nurse came over to me and slowly pulled the pencil out. She then asked me to stand up next to the wall, drop my pants and underwear, put my hands up against the wall and do a “spread eagle”. She then took a cotton ball, dabbed it in alcohol, and pressed it up against the wound. She then covered the wound with gauze and white sterile tape. (To this day I still have a tiny blue dot on my bottom marking the entry point of that pencil.)

I stayed in the nurse’s office all of sixth period and was released to attend my seventh period gym class, but was not allowed to suit up and participate. Instead, I was assigned to the towel cage to fold towels. When I arrived there, I found Richard. Richard told me he had been suspended from school for two days for the incident, and was to spend seventh period in the towel cage until his mother could come and pick him up. He then said that he was sorry, and that he hadn’t really stabbed me like Mr. Goodwin said. “I held the pencil up on your seat and you sat on it,” he explained. At that moment we both started laughing. Richard continued to say that Mr. Dubois, the vice principal, told him that if the pencil would have entered me a couple inches to the left I would be going to the bathroom through a tube the rest of my life. We broke out in laughter again, and continued laughing, until this new guy walked into the towel cage. He looked at me and said in a bullying way, “What’s so funny?”

“Nothing,” I responded.

“Then stop laughing,” he commanded.

Richard knew him and said,”Hey John.” The two of them talked for maybe a minute, and I could tell Richard felt nervous conversing with him. Then, John turned and asked me a question. I can’t remember what the question was or the answer I gave. But, the next thing I can remember is John throwing me down on a pile of towels and putting several of them over my face. He then began to press down on the towels. After a few moments, I could hear Richard’s voice telling John to let me up. And, you know the rest. Immediately after that, John left the towel cage, and Richard said, “Stay away from him.” After a short time John left Stanford Jr. High School. I never saw him again.

A little more than a year later

A little more than a year after the incident with the towels, I’m standing outside one of the school’s buildings with some kids waiting for school to start. This is when Richard approached me and asks if I had heard what John had done.

“John who?” I asked?

“You know the guy who almost smothered you last year in the towel cage,” he explained.

“What’d he do? “ I asked with increased interest. “He smothered a 22 month old baby over in Rolling Hills Estates,” Richard continued on with emotion filling his voice.

As the bell rang, he ended with, “You’re lucky.” By the time school was out that day, kids all over the school were talking about John, and what he had done. At home that night, the story was on the local television news, and my mother asked me if perhaps I knew John Miller.

“A little bit,” was my evasive answer.

“What’s a little bit?” was her immediate follow-up.

“Barely,” was my reply.

“How barely is barely?” she asked pointedly.

“Not at all. OK?” was my less than truthful response. I was always a little bit afraid of how my mother would react under certain conditions. She had the reputation of being a tough businesswoman, of driving Cadillacs, and of having a hair pin reaction if she thought anyone was hassling either her or her children. There was no way I wanted to tell her about the towel experience with John Miller. The year before, she had already gone to school and talked to the principal, vice principal, nurse and my teacher over the pencil incident. In my mind, I couldn’t afford another repeat of that. And if she ever found out that the pencil incident happened on the same day as the towel experience, she would have declared war on the school. Anyway, the conversation ended with her giving me “the eye”. The eye was the expression she made with her face and eyes when she didn’t believe what I was saying.

Nineteen Years Later

It’s 1976, and nineteen years had passed since the towel cage experience. I was married and living in Torrance California. I was 32 years old. We had three children, and we were very busy. We were adding on to our small home, and working hard at our profession. One morning, I was reading the newspaper and came across an article about a Long Beach man who had killed his parents. I didn’t think much about it until I read his name, John Miller. At first, I only had a vague memory of an experience I had had with a John Miller. I couldn’t quite pin it down. In nineteen years I had met a lot of Millers. Art Miller, Margaret Miller, Johnny Miller, etc. But, as I continued reading the article, it reported that Miller had been sent to prison eighteen years ago when he was 15 for smothering a 22 month old girl in Rolling Hills Estates, California. He had been released from prison and within two months of his release had taken the lives of his parents Harold and Lela Miller of Long Beach.

“Oh, my word,” I thought to myself, “this is the same guy who tried to smother me.”

I was stunned. I just sat there at the breakfast table as if in a trance. Finally, my wife asked me if there was something wrong.

“This guy in the newspaper just killed his parents in Long Beach,” I said.

“What a tragedy,” my wife responded.

“Yeah, and eighteen years ago he smothered a 22 month old baby girl in Rolling Hills,” I continued.

“Did you know him?” she asked.

“Yes, when I was in seventh grade he tried to smother me,” I revealed for the first time since the towel cage incident happened.

“You’ve never told me that. What happened?” I then went on to tell her the whole story.

Thirty three years later

It’s now 1990, I’m 45 years old and we are moving into our dream home on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. For the previous ten years, things had started kicking in for us professionally and financially. We now had five children, and two of them were away attending college. We were riding high. All I could think of were the goals we had accomplished, and the home we were moving into.

My wife and I were at the title company closing on this home when I looked down at the documents and saw our new address, 37 Misty Acres Rd., Rolling Hills Estates. All of the sudden I became fixated on the words, “Rolling Hills Estates.” Then, I remembered that this was the same area where John Miller had taken the little girl’s life. Again, all those memories began to resurface in my mind: the towel cage, the little girl, Harold and Lela Miller. I became lost in my thoughts, and the excitement over moving into the new home became muted.

“Mr. Hendrix,” the title officer interrupted, “do you have a question?”

“No,” I said with hesitation in my voice. “. . . Do you have a pen I can use?”

Needless to say, I had not forgotten the towel cage experience, and the tragedies that had befallen the three people who had lost their lives. If anything, my emotions had intensified over the years.

Now

On occasion these flashbacks of the towel cage experience and the three deaths continue to come back to me. As I reflect on them I am inclined, more than ever before, to try and understand the reasons for their return. The obvious one may be a sense of guilt I harbor. Had my friend Richard not said something to John Miller that day in the towel cage, there is a possibility that I would have been John’s first victim. Having escaped, of course, I feel fortunate, but to this day I continue to feel bad for those who did not. Over the years I have developed a deep aversion to any act of cruelty or violence. I cannot change what has already happened, but I can be vigilant about the present.