I was born in the shadow of our nation’s capital. Growing up in the Washington DC area it was a common event to drive passed the White House and the Capital buildings. Like so many people who grow up in an area with a huge tourist industry, my family never did the ‘tourist’ thing. To this day I’ve never toured the White House or any other buildings used to govern our country. My early school field trips took care of visits to the Smithsonian, the Museum of National Art and the Washington Post however, so I’m not completely bankrupt of local sophistication regarding the area.
It will come as no surprise that my locale was a hot bed of racial tension during my childhood. The year my father died was the same year Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated, it was a year of riots, and even more change in my family due to my father’s unexpected death. I was not alone in figuring out my place all of this, my brother, just 18 months my senior was my closest friend and ally.
The year was 1968, I was nearly through fourth grade, and after a winter of being kept inside all the kids were excited to see spring arrive. Warmer weather led to exciting games of kick-ball, running around in the school yard and swinging about on the school’s playground equipment.
It’s also a time when the boys determine to correct ‘pecking order’ mistakes inflicted by a their teacher during the winter. Teachers have been known to make terrible mistakes in that regard.
With the exception of scuffles with my brother (he always cleaned my clock) I managed to stay clear of school yard challenges, off the radar of the bullies was easy when you were the class clown. Bullies loved the irreverent nature of my comedy. As the third child in a family with four kids, I was the peacemaker. That was my job. So being light hearted, and a jester was hard-wired in me from my earliest memories. On that fateful spring day I learned, to my shock, that humor could not save me from the angry advances of a smaller boy with a bone to pick.
“Kevin”, as I’ll call him, was in the ‘other’ fourth grade class, and to this day I could not tell you what his issue with me was, but an issue he had. In fact, one day Kevin sought me out and challenged me to a fight. He began to push me around, call me names, and generally try to egg me on. Finally, the little welterweight took a swipe at me and the hair on my back stood on end, I was suddenly all in! More pushing and shoving ensued, angry words were exchanged and we agreed to meet after school at the end of the ball field, far out of the watchful eyes of the teachers.
Since I walk home in the direction of the meeting spot I figured if no one was there I would continue on my way. Fat chance of that, quite a crowd from school had heard about this event and arrived with Kevin to watch. I went over to the crowd hoping it would defuse, regardless of my saber rattling, I don’t like to fight. Kevin didn’t waste any time in starting the dance that late afternoon, fists up, moving about the ring that had been created by the crowd, and me a bit off balance from the enthusiasm of the mob for a good beat down.
Nervously I raised my fists, falling into a very poor imitation of Cassius Clay. “Float like I butterfly, sting like a bee” isn’t easy on grass as I soon discovered. Kevin tried to throw a few well signaled round house punches hoping to end this ordeal as quickly as it started, to his dismay, I had plenty of time to “shuffle” out of his path. I moved closer and launched my counter punches with the precision of a second grade school girl bitch slapping her younger brother. Kevin would have no part of this and decided to take this fight to a new level, thus, he charged me! Head down, running straight for me, he tried to tackle me to the ground. Now, Kevin was smaller than me and I was small for my age so you can imagine what a comedy this would have looked like.
We wrestled to the ground and in short order I was on top of Kevin, arms pinned under my knees and I hit him once in the face. He started to cry, more from embarrassment than from the strength of my blow. I saw no purpose in continuing and shouted at him, “Do you give?”
“No!” he said, now fighting back more tears. Kevin continued his struggle to free himself. Just then I heard the unmistakable voice of my brother as he made his was through the crowd, “Hit ’em! Hit’em Tim! Pound him good!” My brother had a different sense of justice then I.
After a couple more light punches to Kevin’s chest, harmless but meant to show my dominance, I asked him once again, “You give?”
And by this time Kev’ apparently had enough. My brother urged me to continue the beat down, for my part I was only too happy to claim victory without bloodshed and head home. Kevin had another strategy, as I let him up, he took another well timed poke at me hoping to change his fortunes. I pulled him back down, reasserted my dominance by pinning his arms under my knees and yelled at him, “Hey, I won, you gave!”
I faked the motions to punch him, each time he winched. Again I insisted, “I won, you gave?”
My brother said I was nuts and should give him a good beating. Still, I have no taste for this stuff and wanted it to end.
Kevin played out his failed strategy two more times before I decided to end it for good. I let him off the ground without freeing his arms from my grasp, shoving him to the other side of the make-shift ring. He stumbled to the ground as he back peddled ending up on his butt. I pointed my finger at him and said, “I beat you, you lost.”
Kevin got up proclaiming he wasn’t finished with me yet, all while lifting his fists for another go ’round. I turned and walked away.
Home for me was just down the small hill, across a parking and into the apartment on the first floor. My brother joined me still confused why I didn’t finish what Kevin had started. I told him I didn’t like hurting him, it was clear I could beat him. The only point left to make was “The Walk Away.”
I think the times that define us most as kids are moments of clarity, when we choose our own path in the face of crowds, or even brothers, urging us to a course of action we have no conviction about.
Kevin didn’t bother me any more, I can only assume he moved on to another “pecking order” correction.
As for me, I discovered the empowerment of “The Walk Away.” I knew I could stand my ground if necessary, but equally understood that walking away can be a even stronger message.
What have you walked away from?
Thanks for reading this far.