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PHIPPSBURG, Maine — When John Skroski sleeps, which he doesn’t do very well most of the time, his eyes remain cracked open.
He didn’t even realize it until his wife pointed it out to him soon after they married and moved in together in 1993.
“It was odd for me, because I’d always seen people when they’re sleeping have their eyes closed,” Kadi Skroski, now a nurse, recalled. “I didn’t really think it had anything to do with his background until we dived into it a little further, and realized there was something more to it — that it was like he was always keeping a watch out.”
Growing up, John Skroski never really felt he could give in to sleep. On the good nights, he would stay awake until the house went quiet, then sneak down the creaky wooden steps, terrified of being caught, and make his way to the loaf of Wonderbread in the kitchen. He still distinctly remembers the soft texture of the white bread and its smell, so secretly warm and satisfying after another evening without supper, standing in the corner for literally hours while much of the rest of his family ate and socialized.
On the bad nights, he would lay in bed with his nerves needling in anticipation, knowing that at any moment, he could be dragged out for more abuse.
If Skroski succumbed to exhaustion and had the gall to snore, he would be jarred back to consciousness with his stepmother’s fingers driven into the back of his throat, “to shut me up,” he recalled.
“I’d be upstairs, not quite asleep,” Skroski said. “My door would fly open and my stepmother would drag me and my sister downstairs and line us up against the wall, and she’d scream at my father, ‘Who do you love more? Me or your stupid kids?’”
Skroski’s older sister, Alicia Skroski Khlass, now lives in southern California.
“When she came in at night, she would come in and choke you, or grab you by the hair and throw you outdoors, it didn’t even matter if it was wintertime,” he recalled.
Skroski, the chief of police in the tight-knit coastal town of Phippsburg, received his second statewide award in two weeks Friday night, on this occasion at the Maine Chiefs of Police Association banquet at the Wyndham Hotel in South Portland. On Jan. 28, he was given the Maine Association of Police Heroism Award at a ceremony in Portland, both honors for Skroski’s role in the rescue of two women stranded on Fox Island off Popham Beach last March.
On that bitterly cold and stormy day unfit for rescue helicopters or boats, Skroski donned a wetsuit and pushed through chest-high waters, seaspray and fog blinding him, angry currents yanking back on his feet with each step forward. The chief was untethered to either the mainland or the island ahead, hands up and occupied with wetsuits for the two stranded women, pressing on for what turned out to be two hours in the watery tumult.
Georgia pediatrician Elizabeth Leduc, 50, and her teenage daughter fell prey to the deceitful beckoning of the low tide sandbar stretching from the beach to the island several hours earlier. Over the history of Popham Beach, the sandy passageway to Fox Island has coaxed many visitors to cross over, promising Atlantic vistas before the incoming tide mischievously closes the ocean gate behind them. But on March 11, 2011, the weather conditions were such that Leduc began shivering uncontrollably, starting to slip into hypothermic shock and squeezing out words to prepare her daughter for the possibility she might not survive.
Yet on marched John Skroski through the frigid salty water.
“When he was treading that water trying to make it out to Fox Island, he was reliving that abuse from his youth and he was reliving that pain,” Khlass said, “and he tried to think about all the people who had helped him get through it.”
‘I want to move forward’
Skroski, who turns 40 this month, gets emotional sometimes when discussing his younger years. But when his eyes well up and his voice gets short, it’s rarely when he’s describing the abuses he said he and his sister endured at the hands of their stepmother, Linda.
Skroski gets emotional when he remembers the adults along the way who offered him kind words of encouragement, which he clung to and cherished in what he called pockets of “safe time” away from home, in school or while taking tae kwon do lessons.
“I’m not the sort of person to focus on the negative,” he said, listing influential teachers, Cub Scout leaders and mentors of his youth. “I want to move forward. I want to have a positive impact. I can’t say enough about the example and the love I received from my teachers. I remember every time a teacher put their arm around me or smiled or said, ‘good job.’”
Skroski’s father, also named John, was a decorated police chief in western Massachusetts who divorced the biological mother of his first two children and married Linda when little John was just 2 years old. Linda came to the marriage with two kids of her own and the couple had another baby together, making it a household of five children in all.
The elder John Skroski worked all hours, and while he was recalled as warm and loving by his first son, he never was around to prevent the abuse, which the younger John Skroski said was reserved specifically for him and Alicia.
Little John was 5 when he said Linda went into a rage about the way he was stacking wood — not good or fast enough, Skroski to this day doesn’t know what the problem was — and hit him so hard in the face his eye swelled shut. The stepmother told him to feed his father a story when he got home from work, to say that he fell and hit his face on the wood stack. When little John couldn’t bring himself to lie to his dad, Linda threw him over the table and beat him with a belt until he changed his story to the one she coached him on.
When government social services workers came to the home to check on a teacher’s report of Alicia arriving at school with a black eye, young John said he listened in to hear Linda tell the agent her stepdaughter was a pathological liar. And he heard the deafening lack of protest by the father he idolized. The social workers went on their way, Skroski now recalls, assuming his sister made it all up.
It was one of the many incidents Khlass said she was accused of fabricating. She said she was pushed to the basement at the age of 4 and whipped with a belt for “playing too loudly,” and years later was hit with a hot curling iron when she dared to shower. The siblings said Linda refused to let them bathe and became violently angry when she smelled soap in their hair, often as a result of secret baths by the outside garden hose when the stepmother was out for walks.
She seemed to delight in seeing John and Alicia ostracized by classmates for being dirty and unkempt, Khlass said.
On another occasion, young John came home from a class to find his sister scrubbing the basement floor with gasoline, watching her fingers turn yellow and throwing up from the fumes while their stepmother stood over her screaming at her to keep cleaning.
“A lot of the blame is on her, but I also blame [their father] for letting it happen all those years,” Kadi Skroski said. “I think he knew and I think he always felt guilty about the way his children were raised.”
John Skroski’s father died unexpectedly last June of bacterial meningitis. Linda contracted amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — a debilitating muscle disease better known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease — and died in 1993, her stepson said.
For years, the Phippsburg police chief kept the dark side of his youth secret from friends, colleagues and residents of the small coastal town where he has worked since 2001.
Skroski said he decided to open up about his childhood now because the recent Fox Island rescue forced the painful memories to the forefront of his mind and the recent awards perhaps afford him the platform to raise awareness of child abuse, which he said is not always obvious.
“I’m worried that there’s another little John Skroski out there that may be missed,” Skroski said.
“[Our stepmother] would be beating the crap out of us, and then she would answer the phone and say, ‘Oh hi, how are you?’ all pleasantly,” Khlass said. “There’s a false myth that this sort of thing only happens in low-income families, and there’s a blind trust that abuse never happens in nice neighborhoods.”
But Skroski said teachers, coaches and martial arts trainers provided enough encouragement, without realizing what he was going through at home, to keep him moving forward. He said a drill instructor at the Massachusetts Criminal Justice Training Center in Agawam noticed that he was unusually nervous and instead of kicking him out of the academy, helped him seek counseling and complete the course to become a police officer.
“It comes down to people — good people who worked their way into my life for whatever reason,” Skroski, who teaches tae kwon do and takes an active role in the local school, said. “I’ve made it this far because of my faith in God, and the good people who have helped me. Parents need to be good role models, and it does take a village to raise a child. If members of my village had been missing from my life, I don’t know how I would have turned out.”