My father poked his head in my room. He waited until I acknowledged his presence, then asked, “How are you and Tommy getting along?”
I shrugged. “OK, I guess.”
“That’s not what I hear. I hear he’s giving you a rough time.”
I shrugged again. “Not really.”
I was three years old, but already my language skills were developing at a rapid pace. Adults were always saying so.
“Oh my. Well bless his little heart. He’s a precocious child, isn’t he?“
Also, the myriad pieces of my cognitive puzzle had been snapping into place to a sufficient degree that I thought I could use my language skills to bullshit my father, but not yet sufficient to realize that wouldn’t be happening. He quickly disavowed me of any such notion with his trademark look: his right eyebrow arched and his left eyebrow frowned. However he managed that seemingly superhuman trick, I knew it meant that whatever I said next, I’d best choose my words carefully.
He said, “Let’s talk.”
Tommy was four. Given that the difference in our ages exceeded the scope of my conscious memory, that alone granted him alpha status in my book.
He knew things.
Tommy was also a bully. Goes with the role, I guess. Alphas push betas around. Sometimes, to the ground.
We’d been thrown together by circumstance. Our mothers got together most mornings for coffee and chat. These were early cold-war moms. Neither had been to college. Neither knew a thing about actualizing their potential. They were perfectly fine getting high on caffeine, smoking cigarettes, and talking their mornings away in blissful ignorance of their oppressed state. And also of their two young boys who they banished to the backyard to fend for themselves.
“There will always be bullies,” my father instructed. “You’ll always have someone in your life who wants to make you miserable, just because they can, and they enjoy it.”
He had my attention now. Such is the process by which wisdom passes from generation to generation.
“I understand he pushed you down today.”
As the shame of defeat washed over me, I reluctantly nodded.
“What did you do about it?”
I shrugged, a response I sensed was rapidly approaching its use by date.
“I got back up.”
Now he shrugged. “I guess that’s better than lying there in the dirt.”
Oh, the cruelty. The shame of defeat now turned to the shame of cowardice. Could he have twisted the dagger any deeper?
“A lot of people have a lot of ideas about how to handle bullies. Only one works.”
“You hit them.”
Doubtless it was visions of the flag raising on Iwo Jima that he hoped to impart to me. I, on the other had, saw kamikaze pilots on a doomed quest to take out an aircraft carrier.
“You hit him first and you hit him hard. You don’t think about it. You just walk up to him and you hit him in the nose. Dead center. He’ll never expect that. It’ll hurt, but better, it’ll confuse him. That’s when you hit him again. On the side of his jaw. His hands will be up at his nose so you’ll have a clear shot. That’ll hurt too, but it will also feel weird and confuse him even more. And remember: you can always kick him in the nuts.”
In the primordial ooze of my earliest development I’d already covered that topic, along with rolling off the couch and touching a hot steam pipe.
Don’t get me wrong. I realize that myriad ethical, moral, and spiritual questions arise in response to this philosophy of unconditional victory. But recall it had been just eight years since that philosophy had proven an unconditional success. (Perhaps it might be fruitful to explore, at a future date, the process by which those myriad questions have managed to transform that philosophy into toxic masculinity. But that’s a different topic.) At the moment the only question in my head was, How the fuck am I going to pull this off? But I’d been given my mission. There was a hill to take. Failure was not an option.
My father’s morality was black and white.
- This works, that doesn’t.
- If you stop to think, you’re losing the race.
- You sit on the fence, you just get a crease in your ass.
He also understood fear, aided, no doubt, by his years as a machine gunner on a PT boat in the South Pacific. Fuck fear.
And so I had the opportunity to taste the delicious clarity that rises within when your options are reduced to one, and you simply accept that there is business to tend to, and, no matter what, you will take care of business.
Suffice it to say, events unfolded precisely as my father predicted. I was even able to spare the poor bastard’s nuts. As he ran crying into the house, I knew how Hannibal felt as he emerged from the shadow of the Alps with his elephants, catching the Romans by surprise, and crushing them.
Then, the inevitable second-guessing set in and I thought I’m in shit now.
But it was not so. I followed Tommy into the house in time to hear his mother ask, “Yeah? Well what did you do to deserve it?” Wow. No threatened litigation, no emergency calls to the therapist, no medication suggested. 50s mom.
My mother, magnanimous in her son’s triumph said, “That’s not how we taught you to behave. Shame on you.” Thanks Ma, but I’d already done the shame thing. It looked nothing like this.
And then we were once more banished to the backyard, our only guidance to “play nice.”
Moments of transition are perhaps the closest thing to mystical experience available to our secular world. The bullet rises until gravity reclaims its trajectory and it begins to fall. But for a moment, an infinitely immeasurable moment, a delta point, it is in neither state, simply floating. Tommy and I felt ourselves suspended in such a moment, all forces perfectly equal and balanced, all rules suspended, all roles discarded.
Then I said, “I got a BB gun for my birthday.”
“Wanna see it?”
In the garage, I took it down from the shelf, held it a moment, then handed to him. Fortunately, men learn the significance of such ritual gestures long before language evolves to corrupt and limit them.
“Can we shoot it?”
“Not without my Dad.”
“That’s smart. That way, if you screw up and hit something you shouldn’t, he’ll get in trouble, not you.”
Click-clack went a couple more pieces of my cognitive puzzle snapping into place.
He knew things.
I had the feeling this was going to be the start of a beautiful friendship.