There were a lot of kids up at the bus stop, but the only one who really mattered was Tom.
I first met Tom the second summer after we moved into Allen Point. He and Bruce were throwing stones into the lagoon.
Throwing stones was something that I did a lot of at Allen Point. I had a strong arm (I won the class baseball toss every year at Artondale Field Day). Still, I couldn’t throw as far as Tom. He was a couple of years older than me, and could huck a stone practically all the way across to the other side of the lagoon. That was a long way.
I love to throw stones, and I got pretty good — well, very good actually — at it. With practice, I moved on from the basics of throwing for distance, skipping, or hitting things like trees to more complex skills like hitting something that was moving or with a skipping stone, or throwing a stone to curve curve around an object and hit something behind it. (In all of these tasks, by the way, stone selection is crucial.) I also used to throw a bottle or pop can that had washed up back out into the water, drive it way out by throwing stones to on one side, and then hit and sink it. That was a trick. Not that it mattered for the bus stop. What mattered there was Tom.
Tom was the bully. He was bigger, older, faster, meaner, and stronger than everyone else, and he used that those advantages to tease and pick on everyone, especially Russell.
Tom’s special delight was to throw stones at you so that you couldn’t come near the bus stop. And, as I said, he could throw a very long way. Sometimes you had to stand all the way back where the drive came up. When the bus came, you had to wait until Tom got on the bus and then race out of hiding to try and catch it before it took off. Tom would look out the back window and laugh at you running to get on, or just sit down with a smirk and wait for you. It was ironic, having to run to get picked on again. He got a big kick out of it.
Finally, I just got tired of the game. I didn’t run away. When I didn’t, Tom pushed me down and glowered at me. “I can beat you up,” her jeered. “Of course you can,” I responded as if he had just told me what two plus two was, “You’re bigger, older, and stronger than me. What’s so big about that?” I expected to get thrashed, but didn’t. I’m not sure if it was what I said, or how I said it, or what. But he left me pretty much alone after that.
Not so with Russell. Russell was a bit taller than me, but thinner. We had gone to kindergarten at Mrs. Foster’s together, and he lived down the beach to the south. He had a ragged mop of hair and a goofy good-natured grin. But Russell wore his emotions on his sleeve, and that’s what put the bullseye on him. Tom and Bruce would hound him until he would practically cry in a combination of genuine rage, frustration, and fright. And they wouldn’t stop, no matter what any of the rest of us did or said. I remember joining in once, throwing a stone towards Russell where he glowered down at the corner, and tossing a pine cone at Christine, who also got picked on from time to time. Those were the least satisfying things I have ever thrown. I just don’t have what it takes to pick on anyone much or for long.
And, perhaps because of that bus stop, it enrages me to see other people do it to others. I nearly got the shit beat out of me when I was working at the warehouse for West Coast grocery for defending this insipid holier-than-thou NW Baptist Seminary student. We had a lot of present and former seminarians down there. They came to work their way through school, stayed for the money, and asuaged their guilt the way, in my experience, Baptists do: by confidently proclaiming judgement on everyone else. Rick, an angry little loser and tough guy, discovered Mr. Insipid cheating at an order, and constantly mocked and tormented him. It wasn’t that Rick didn’t pick a cherry order when he could (nearly everyone did – even the Baptists. It was sometimes the only way to keep up with the time requirements). But he didn’t act like he was above doing it either. That’s what got under his skin. There should be some measure of honesty among thieves.
One night (I worked graveyard), I finally couldn’t take it any more and got in his way. None of the Baptist buddies would intervene. It got pretty tense. Rick just couldn’t see that his obsession with Mr. Insipid and his preferred method of mocking him (running around behind the guy imitating him as a ferret) made Rick himself look like more of an idiot than his target. Fortunately, Rick couldn’t afford to lose his job (again) and I was just strange and unknown enough to not be worth taking a chance on beating up.
Russell, in time, escaped by moving and going to the new Purdy Elementary. Tom and Bruce moved on to Goodman Jr. High, and I eventually moved to Moorelands. But there was no real escaping anyone in Gig Harbor. Everyone was destined to reunite at Peninsula, the only high school in Gig Harbor, no matter where they went.
By then, throwing had taken us in different directions. Russell and I were playing baseball JV baseball. I pitched and he played first base. Tom, on the other hand, had taken up the javelin, and his arm was making him into a national star. The Peninsula field, bounded by the track, was like the lagoon; Tom could hurl that javelin in a soaring arc nearly all the way across. The baseball coaches always told us to be on the lookout over at the diamond when he was practicing, and every once in a while a javelin would go just a bit astray. I, and probably Russell, kept a particular eye on him, and I think there was probably a deep little part of Tom that was delighted at having everyone on edge when he was throwing and at having Russell trapped there on first base.
Tom never really got much bigger. He must have mostly stopped growing, like me, in early high school. Russell, however, got a lot bigger. And he stayed angry. I doubt Tom — or anyone for that matter — would be likely to try and pick on him now.
Eventually Tom moved on to college and onto the national track and field stage. There, that incredible arm eventually gave out and he had to retire due to a torn rotator cuff. If, as some people say, we only have so many throws in us; no matter how we train or stretch or build our bodies only have so many great throws in them, throwing all those rocks at me and Russell may, like bad karma, have finally come home to roost.
But if that was bad karma, it caught up with me too, and sooner. Maybe joining in, even once or twice, infects you with the weight of the whole business you help to perpetuate. Maybe it was somehow the deer that I unintentionally killed while trying to save it from a fate that it was, in retrospect, probably not going to suffer. Maybe it was all the crabs and ants I gleefully and mindlessly killed, scores of them, playing my boyish games. Even the little things eventually add up, you know. My arm suddenly gave out while I was pitching a game against Wilson in my sophomore season. I remember something going terribly wrong, and having, eventually, to simply walk off the mound. I never went back to pitching, and still can barely throw overhand.
But later, back home on Moorelands, on the spit at Shaw’s Cove, I started practicing throwing underhand. I just couldn’t give up throwing stones altogether. I had heard that throwing underhand works better with the musculature, and that underhand pitchers can actually throw faster with less strain on the arm.
It was true. I can now throw and skip a stone farther than I ever could before (with the right stone selection, of course). When I do, occasionally something goes wrong. My arm swells up like it was made by a clown as a part of a balloon animal, and the pain can last for several days. The same thing happens if I try to water ski, and so I have pretty much given that up. But can’t resist picking up a nice silver-dollar flat stone when Susan and I go down to the beach, and sending it flying out toward the old pilings like Odysseus letting the discus fly among the Phaeacians. I haven’t cast my last stone yet. And I’m a lot more careful now what, or whom, I step on just for the fun of it.