I ALWAYS FELT LIKE A SUPERHERO. AND EVERY SUPERHERO has an origin story. The Hulk got hit with gamma rays, Batman became an orphan, and Spider-Man received that infamous bite from a radioactive spider. My origin story happened when I was two years old. My mother and father were arguing, a common occurrence in our cramped upstairs apartment on Albert Street in Flint, Michigan. An extension cord was plugged into the living room wall to power a nearby lamp. As they fought, I put one end of the cord in my mouth while it was still attached to the wall socket. It blew up, and I got shocked. My mother said I never made a sound. No screaming or crying, just a bloody, smoking lower lip with a hunk of skin hanging grotesquely from my chin. The cord at my feet told her what had happened.
Panicked I was in cardiac arrest—or worse—because of my eerie silence, they both rushed me off to the hospital. My mother was questioned by nurses, doctors, and even the police, as they harbored suspicions about her story, but eventually—to her great relief—child abuse was ruled out. A sense of gratitude accompanied the realization that it could have been much worse: I could have been electrocuted. Instead, the jolt of electricity gave me my “superpowers” and the scar I still have on my lower lip.
As I grew up, I loved hearing about my superhero beginnings, and I asked my parents to tell me the story again and again. As they told and retold it, I sometimes imagined I’d been electrocuted and had died in that room. I had visions of God sending angels to bring me back to life because God had determined I was special. Not only that, but I also saw God speaking as the doctors did in the opening titles of my favorite show, The Six Million Dollar Man: “I can rebuild him. Make him stronger.” My imagination as a child stayed on overdrive at all times and has remained just as vivid to this day.
The matriarch of our family—my wise, tough-as-nails grand-aunt, Mama Z—put the piece of my lip in a mason jar and kept it on her mantel. Needless to say, my mother was horrified every time she saw it, as it had blackened into a tough jerky, and she was happy when Mama Z finally threw out her macabre souvenir. But for me, this family legend was just more proof that I was special. The story made me feel exceptionally tough because I’d survived something that should have killed me. My quarter-sized keloid scar on my bottom lip has always been a reminder of my strength and survival.
When I was three, the arguments with my father became so unbearable that my mother moved out of our Albert Street apartment and joined Mama Z and her husband, Brother Wright, on their farm just outside Flint. My mother, my older brother, Marcelle, and I lived in their attic for a year. I loved every minute of our time there, especially running outside among the chickens, pigs, and cornstalks.
Mama Z talked nonstop while Brother Wright sat in the kitchen nodding yes or shaking his head no. She was an amazing cook and prepared feasts, which I devoured. My hunger embarrassed my mother, and she always told me not to ask for anything. But she also told me not to lie. And Mama Z constantly asked me if I was hungry. I looked at my mother, noticed her angry squint, but still I nodded yes. Mama Z fixed me a huge plate of meat, beans, vegetables, and potatoes, as well as peach cobbler packed with ripe peaches she’d picked behind the house. I grinned at my mother until she reluctantly smiled back, knowing she’d been foiled again.
My mother often left us alone with Mama Z, a tough cookie who worked outside every day and introduced me to how real the world could be. In the morning, she stood in her kitchen, declaring there would be chicken for dinner as Brother Wright nodded in agreement. Then she went out back by the barn and looked for a good-sized chicken. I sat on the back stoop, watching as Mama Z tiptoed around with the fowl, almost mimicking their steps.
“Here, chickee, chickee, chickee,” she called out in the sweetest little-old-lady voice imaginable.
Then she violently yanked the bird she wanted out of the crowd and held the neck still while spinning the body around in circles like a jump rope. When she let her victim go, the other chickens scattered and clucked loudly as her chicken—its neck broken, head dangling near its feet—ran around the yard flapping its wings for what was the longest minute of my short life. As the runaway chicken came near me, I recoiled on the stoop, scared to death it might attack me.
“Go on in the house,” she said, waving me inside.
When she carried in the chicken, she promptly dunked it in boiling water, then plucked, gutted, butchered, and fried it. I watched every step, determined that I was never going to eat that bird. But as time went on, I grew hungrier and hungrier, and by the time she placed that same chicken down in front of me, with white rice and corn, I ate every bite. Plus seconds. It was the best chicken I ever tasted.
After a year with Mama Z, my mother and father reconciled, and we moved back in with my father. But not all reunions are happy. Before long, there were plenty of reasons I started feeling the need to be tough, even though I was only in kindergarten. We relocated to a small, ramshackle house on Flint Park Avenue. My father, Big Terry, began getting ready for the birth of my little sister, Michaell, and he and Trish, which is what we called my mother, moved Marcelle and me into the smaller of the two bedrooms.
At sixteen, my mother had given birth to my brother, and then had me at eighteen. I now suspect her youth had something to do with why we never called her Mom. And I believe we didn’t refer to Big Terry as Dad in order to make it easier on Marcelle because he wasn’t Marcelle’s birth father. The fact that we had different fathers was never hidden from Marcelle and me, and I often wondered what Marcelle’s father looked like and what he was doing. I thought about how it would feel to not know or have contact with my birth father, and I was always sensitive to what it must be like for Marcelle.
Once Big Terry and Trish had moved us into the smaller bedroom, they stacked our beds into bunk beds, which my brother and I loved because they now earned our highest compliment. “It’s just like on TV!” we shouted when we ran into the room and saw them for the first time. I prowled around, trying out amazing feats of strength and showing off for Marcelle. Superhero-style, I lifted dressers and the living room couch and flexed endlessly, imagining electricity still running through my body. I would take the bottom bunk because I had a bad habit of falling out of bed in my sleep. I was also a bed wetter. Until I was fourteen.
Looking back on that time, I realize that my bed-wetting had something to do with how unsafe I sometimes felt in that house. One of the first nights my brother and I were sleeping in our new room, I woke up from a sound sleep to rumbling in the house that felt like thunder. BOOM. BOOM. BOOM. BOOM. BOOM. I lay in the dark, trying to make sense of where I was and what was happening. The whole place was shuddering. Trish was shrieking and screaming. It was pandemonium. I’d never heard anything like that before in our house, but nothing could have prepared me for those sounds anyhow. It felt like war.
Our bedroom door was closed, but light leaked in from the other side. My father had just installed a makeshift divider between our bedroom and the living room. It was uneven and allowed light and sounds to filter through the cracks to where we lay. I heard Big Terry’s booming footsteps and a weird shuffling sound. It felt like an earthquake was shaking everything. I thought of my favorite Godzilla movies and wondered if the house would fall down like when he destroyed a city. I was scared of what was happening, and I stayed in my bed with the covers pulled up over my head. Marcelle did, too.
It became common for me to wake up to these sounds. And soon, there was a night when the chaos spilled into our room as my mother burst through the door.
“I’m going to take the boys and go,” she said.
Big Terry followed close behind her. She had left before, and he knew she was serious. “Don’t, Trish,” he said, his voice pleading.
I blinked against the light, scared, trying not to do anything to make it worse.
“I’m telling you, I’m gonna take them,” she said.
Something in Big Terry seemed to snap.
“You do that, and you’ll be sorry,” he said, his voice growing angry.
Copyright © 2014 by Terry Crews. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.