Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
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Typically, this time of year, I write a piece about the holiday season. This year, I’ve penned a story that took place years ago—during the late spring—nowhere close to the holidays. Nevertheless, even though the tale doesn’t involve presents, or mistletoe, or anything remotely festive, I think it captures the spirit of the season.
The other day, while my three-year-old grandson, Tommy, and I took a walk through the neighborhood, the little guy picked up a rock and tossed it into an irrigation ditch. And then, in the non-sequiturial manner that defines three-year-olds, he looked up at me and whispered, “I love you.” Much to my delight, Tommy tells me this quite often, but on this particular day there was something about the circumstances that jarred loose the memory of an incident I hadn’t thought about for over half a century.
This particular memory started with what should have been a harmless trip to the grocery store. It was the spring of 1953, I was seven years old, and Mom decided she needed to fetch some milk in order to finish a batch of chocolate pudding. Five minutes later, as Mom, my brother Billy, and I rolled up to the grocery store, Mom spotted her best friend Lydia.
“I’m going to be chatting for a while,” Mom barked. “Why don’t you boys play outside with the kids in the neighborhood?”
I was hungrier for snacks than I was for companionship, so I set off in search of discarded pop bottles in nearby gutters. If I got lucky, I’d find a few bottles and trade them in for penny candy. At age eleven, my brother Billy was hungrier for adventure than for sweets, so he set off for points unknown.
After talking with Lydia for nearly half an hour, and with a quart-bottle of milk firmly tucked under her arm, Mom stuck her head outside the store and shouted, “Boys, it’s pudding time!”
With the promise of chocolate hanging in the air, I raced back to the store—but Billy was nowhere to be seen.
“Go find your brother,” Mother exhorted. “He’s probably down by the creek.”
The creek Mom referred to flowed through the countryside a couple of blocks north of the store until it abruptly disappeared into a four-foot-high cement culvert that carried the water underground for two miles. The tunnel was filthy, dark, dangerous, and chock full of rats. In short, it was boy heaven.
Unfortunately, just getting to the creek posed a serious challenge. The route went past the McHenry house and the McHenry house was filled with stone-cold criminals. The adult McHenrys (when not in prison) were constantly tossing back home-brew while feverishly hammering on the pile of rusted auto parts that was their front yard. The McHenry boys, ever anxious to please their parents, cursed, spat, and sic’d their dogs on anyone who had the temerity to breach their territory. I was about to be their next victim.
But I got lucky that day. As I walked toward the creek, the McHenrys were nowhere to be found. Seizing the moment, I dashed passed their den and down to the tunnel entrance. Whew! I had made it!
And then I faced a new challenge. If my brother was, indeed, playing in the culvert, I’d have to shout out a password before he’d let me in. It was kid code. My friends and I were always using secret words such as “Open sesame” to gain entry into our forts or to earn freedom from captivity should the “enemy” lock us up. This system worked quite well except when we changed or forgot the password, which was most of the time.
“Open sesame!” I hollered as I rounded the bend near the mouth of the tunnel. I heard nothing from Billy. “Open sesame!” I tried again, followed by silence and then a resounding “Geronimo!” which also had no effect. Next I tried, “Montezuma!” Then “Beelzebub!” Still no response. Just when I was about to whip out the granddaddy of all passwords—”Code red!”—I was yanked off my feet and held in the air—thrashing like a gaffed salmon. Craning my head to see who had ahold of my collar, I stared into the face of Chuck McHenry, the oldest and foulest of the McHenry boys.
“Lookin’ for your brother, are ya?” Chuck asked with breath that could stop a bullet. “Cuz if you are, me and my brothers have him trapped.”
Sure enough, a few feet away stood two of Chuck’s teenage brothers. They were throwing rocks into the mouth of the tunnel, as if competing in some sort of sadistic carnival game. Eleven-year-old Billy would peek out of the culvert opening to see if the coast was clear and then the McHenrys would hurl jagged rocks at his head.
“Leave my brother alone!” I hollered as I tried my best to kick the McHenry ringleader. Chuck merely laughed. I was seven; he was in his late teens. Fighting was useless.
After I tried to break away for what seemed like an hour, Chuck offered up a plan: “If you want us to let your brother go, you’ll have to do somethin’ for it.”
“What?” I asked.
“What do you guys think?” Chuck questioned his brothers. “Should we make him run naked through stinger nettles?”
“Maybe we should hang him by his heels from a tree!” one of his brothers chimed in.
“I got it!” Chuck announced as he nodded his head knowingly. I couldn’t imagine what he had in mind, but whatever demented stunt he had concocted, I’d gladly do it. Billy was my best friend, my protector, my big brother.
Then, with a grin that suggested he had just devised the most nefarious punishment ever, Chuck announced: “Tell your brother—in a loud voice—that you love him!”
I was confused. This was all he wanted? To tell my brother that I loved him?
“Go ahead,” he chided. “Say it! I dare you!”
“I love you!” I shouted to my brother.
The McHenry boys then hooted and howled. From their point of view, I had just humiliated myself beyond repair. Right there in front of the whole neighborhood, I, a boy, had been tender and sensitive. Worse still, I had dared to say, “I love you”—to my brother no less! Ugh! As far as the McHenrys were concerned, I had completely disgraced myself.
Finally, after nearly laughing himself sick, Chuck tossed me to the ground and threatened to “pound” my brother and me if either of us said a word to our parents. Then, tiring of the whole affair, Chuck turned on his heels and darted back to his lair—his brothers close behind.
After checking to see if the thugs had really gone, Billy cautiously climbed out of the tunnel, took my hand, and walked me back to the grocery store.
“Don’t tell Mom what just happened,” Billy warned. “If you do, the McHenrys will beat us for sure.”
“Plus, if we tattle, Mom will ask us what we learned,” I added. Then we both laughed at the thought. Mom was always asking us what we had learned from our latest debacle and to be honest, I didn’t have a clue what I had just learned. I could say that I had learned not to play in the culvert, or go near the McHenrys—but I already knew that.
No matter what we were supposed to have learned that morning, the incident remained locked deep inside my brain until a few days ago when my grandson, Tommy, tossed a rock into a stream and told me he loved me. And then, like an orb tumbling out of a gumball machine, the McHenry memory tumbled out of the dark recesses of my mind and onto these pages.
I’m glad it’s been nearly sixty years since the original event took place because now I’m mature enough to know what I learned that day. And I’ll be darned if I hadn’t learned it from the most unlikely of characters—Chuck McHenry. The lesson couldn’t be clearer. When threatened by your worst enemy, when going toe-to-toe with the adversary, remember the secret password. Not just any password, but the password.
I love you.
It opens all doors.
21 thoughts on “Kerrying On: The Password”
The conclusion of your story – the password for when you are confronted by your worst enemy – reminded me of the crucial scene in “A Wrinkle in Time”, by Madeline L’Engle. “I love you, Charles Wallace,” Meg said, to save her brother. I love all your stories, Kerry, and this was an especially good one. Thank you.
Thank you for this story, which may be one of the best gifts I receive this season.. a reminder to tell the people that matter to you..that you love them! 🙂
This may be my favorite story yet! Thank you so much, love is the magic password. Peace to you and thanks again for your stories.
Today would have been my mother’s 82nd birthday. She passed away 14 years ago. I was trying to think of something special to send to my brother and sister in honor and rememberance of Mom. Then I received this email and your story.
I’ve forwarded it to them. It helped me tell them, “I love you.”
Your favorite password story made me laugh and cry all at once. Thanks for the gift!
Awesome, Kerry. Your stories always bring back such vivid memories of my own childhood. Your lessons, of which I think this one tops them all, are priceless. Thanks so much for sharing them with us.
What a wonderful story! You and your brother truly “won” that day. Your brother knew for certain that you loved him, and by taking your hand to walk you back, he showed his love for you, too. You also showed your love for your readers by sending us this wonderful memory. Thank you so much for sharing and please have glorious holidays!
While reading your story, it brought back memories of my childhood as a francophone growing up in an anglophone community where people did not like us. My younger brother used to get beat up all the time, and I’d run to help him out. On the way home, we would always say to each other: It doesn’t matter what they do or say, we have the best family, we love each other. Their parents can’t possibly love them as much if they act like that.
I am reminded of that love and that strength by your story. Thank you!
What a mature and lovely reaction to such horrible treatment. Thanks for sharing.
I’m sitting here with a big lump in my throat after reading your story, Kerry. Those three words can bring such comfort.
My husband recently suffered a traumatic brain injury and multiple fractures. While he was unable to talk, he could sing. I was determined to hear him say, “I love you.” I sang those words over and over to him until he sang them back to me. He didn’t really understand the significance of those words at the time, but three weeks later, he tells me often that he loves me and understands the message he is conveying.
Your stories are always heartwarming and wonderful reminders of the simple things that truly matter but that we sometimes forget in our hectic lives. Thank you for blessing me with your message.
What a beautiful story and important lesson. I have been so rushed during this holiday season and I have no idea what made me stop to read this email, but it was some kind of grace. I can’t wait to share it with my husband and his brothers. They spent so much time playing in creeks and culverts as kids and getting into scrapes and fights, too. I know this will bring a smile to their faces. Thank you!
I love you, Kerry!
Once again Kerry hits it on the head… Thanks for sharing yet again another great story with great meaning!
o, well done! Thank-you, Mr. Patterson. It reminded ME of “A Wrinkle in Time” as well and it’s been more years than I care to remember since last I read THAT book.
I must take this moment to compliment the author, whose articles I have been reading all year, have brought such thought provoking enjoyment. This latest article the topper for the year. Not only are the themes of the articles pertinent, but his style of writing is most eloquent and skillfully rolled out for us. THANK YOU. You are not going un-noticed. Your articles are filling many people. (Kerrying on)
Educator, Surgical Services
Brandon Regional Hospital
Kerry, you have demonstrated once again your amazing gift for storytelling. This one really hit home for me. Seven years ago my husband died very unexpectedly. I had left the house that morning the happiest wife in the world and ended it as a grieving widow. I will be forever grateful that the last words I said to him (and the last words he ever heard from me) as I left for the office were, “I love you and can’t wait to see you again tonight.” From that day on, I have made sure that the people I love, always hear from me just how much I love them.
Thank you for sharing the gift of your story and of yourself Kerry! Your stories are always heartwarming and downright delightful. Merry Christmas!!
Your story is really a Christmas story because it relays the perfect message of Christmas which is Love. Thank you and Merry Christmas.
Great piece, Kerry!
@Ellen, Brian and Rita’s Sister
Another great story! I love the comments as well.