by Leigh Lundin
My brother Glen is responsible for today’s column as well as the stitches in my side from laughing so damn hard. Last week, I’d written about insults and childhood thugs, and one of the nastiest was Lester (whose last name we won’t divulge to authorities) who could have whupped Scut Farkas (A Christmas Story).
First, a little background. These days, Glen is an industrial electrician, somewhere around 6’3 and closely resembles a scowling fork truck as he ambles around the factory floor. However, back in grade school, Glen was small, skinny and– compared to Lester who was at least four or five years older– downright puny, as they say. Lester scared the hell out of everybody, including our bus driver, who, during bus fights, adopted the role not so much of peacemaker as oddsmaker.
Now, transition to the adult Lester as told by Glen:
Lester worked at International/Navistar as a mechanic. He spoke at times and worked together O.K., but he was best known for having NO sense of humour. Another mechanic, a small guy who had a zany sense of humour, really fixed him up.
Lester went on three weeks vacation; the other mechanic told everyone he was off having a penis pump put in so he could get erections again. Naturally, since everyone kept his distance from His Surliness, no one knew whether he had erectile problems or not, and this little dude made it sound convincing.
Lester came back from vacation.
Girls gave him shifty glances and all these guys were winking at him, saying “Hey-hey, got the old plumbing fixed right up, eh?” and giving him lewd grins and the ole thumbs up. Lester about went nuts for two weeks trying to figure out what the hell was going on.
Finally, somebody told him they hoped his penile pump surgery and the after-results went O.K. Lester went ballistic, yelling that his damn penis worked fine, and he didn’t have any damn surgery.
Then the main joker said, “Aw, Lester, that’s all right, we can understand you’re kind of embarrassed about it all.”
That REALLY got him steamed, and we all ached for days afterwards from laughing every time we saw Lester.
Thus, a little sunshine came into the life of a bully, or at least those of us around him.
Last week’s column struck a chord and I heard from a few people (including a few girls) who still recalled school bullies (including a few girls) with fear and loathing. I hadn’t intended to continue the topic, but since today’s column has taken a turn toward yarns, I’ll tell you about the last bully I encountered before I grew big enough to take care of myself.
When I transferred to a small school, classmates were tough on new kids and initially it was difficult to settle in. Moose was a senior, at least three years older than me, and big. When he slouched down the hallways, underclassmen flattened themselves against the walls just to avoid dangerous rotating machinery. I won’t say he was big, but his gym shoes took up their own parking space.
The school was rural and so distant from other schools, that our principal, inspired by the last trip of Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Richie Valens, sent us on as many trips as possible. Such journeys typically ran late into the night and resulted in backaches, lack of sleep, missed homework, and a couple of pregnancies.
During one of these bus trips, it came to the attention of the seniors that I had commited some offense, possibly by not wearing purple socks or other sophomoric act. When a couple of the seniors offered to forcibly remedy the infraction, I fought back which resulted in one of them being thrown into Moose’s lap, who up to that point, hadn’t involved himself.
A deathly silence fell over the bus, leaving only the sounds of the straining engine as the vehicle plunged into the night. Everyone looked at Moose expectantly.
“Now you’ve done it,” offered one of the classmates.
“He’ll whip your ass,” chortled another.
“The last guy he pulverized still’s out on disability.”
“Whachya gonna do to him, Moose? Can we watch?”
Moose held up his hand, demanding a certain decorum. He leaned close to my face and said, “When we get back, we’re gonna have a session, you and me.”
“Whoooo!” said the kids who weren’t already saying, “Wheeee!”
The bus’s transmission gears ground like my stomach. Tree branches scratched the roof like banshee fingernails and the wind rocked the cabin as it lurched along dark country roads.
Nearly two in the morning, the bus panted to a stop outside our school, bringing betting to a close, waking some kids, and alerting the couples in the back seats it was time to dress.
Outside in the darkened schoolyard, Moose crooked his finger toward an alcove formed by an ell in the school walls and a maintenance shed. When 30 kids gathered in the gap to watch, Moose turned on them and snarled for them to get lost.
As the disappointed departed, Moose leaned against a wall and said, “Got a cigarette?”
“Coach won’t let me smoke,” he said. “Kids say you’re smart. People think I’m dumb ’cause I’m big. I’m not as dumb as people think.”
“I’m scared, too. Nobody else knows that.”
“You?” I said with disbelief.
“Know something? I don’t really want to beat you up. It’s just that everybody expects it, but I don’t want to.”
“What you said earlier about being scaredâ€¦ What are you afraid of?”
“Afraid? Nobody’s ever asked me that, probably too scared. See, when school ends, I join the Army and I’ll probably go to war. That scares me to death. Killing and being killed scares me more than anything.”
“Why join the Army, then?”
“My parents expect me and that’s what kids do who are dumb. Without college, it’s the only other option I got.”
“You just said you aren’t dumb. What about vo-tech? Or trade school? Or coaching?”
“No money. You probably think I’m a coward because I don’t want to get killed.”
“I was thinking the opposite. If someone isn’t afraid, it’s not a big deal for them, right? But if someone is scared and they do it anyway, that’s really brave.”
Moose paused. “Never thought of that. But I don’t want to kill anyone. That’s kind of cowardly too, isn’t it?”
“Quakers would tell you that’s the bravest thing of all, that you could, but you won’t. Ever thought about being a medic? Or a mechanic?”
He grinned. “You’re all right, kid. You need a ride home?”
On subsequent bus trips, Moose sometimes dropped into my seat and we’d chat. Undiscovered by others, he had an abundance of introspection and humor.
When he graduated, he spotted me in the gym. Weepy and inebriated, the big galoot came over and hugged me: He was joining the Army. I think he was afraid, but he wasn’t afraid of being afraid.
As writers, we can take everyday people and everyday conversations and find the good, the bad, and possibly the interesting. We’re sponges who learn from others and perceive new perspectives, then pass the results on to others. And, if we’re very, very fortunate, we make a little bit of difference in the world.