I knew something was about to happen. Following the previous evening’s events, something was bound to happen, had to happen. It was my senior year of high school and the evening before, another friend and I had been in a physical altercation with some others in the street in front of my house.
I was never one for fighting. It was probably not because I was some sort of pacifist in my youth. It was merely a survival mechanism. I was always puny. In my senior year in high school I was 5’10” and weighed not much more than 130 lbs. True, I’d thrown an ineffective punch of two in my very early grade school days but, for all intents and purposes, I developed a sense of humor which I’d done my best to cultivate and used to keep from getting my butt kicked.
“Here it comes,” I heard my friend, Bob say. We were on snack break at around 10:00 a.m. I was standing with a group of friends, telling and retelling of the events of the prior evening.
The evening before, another friend, Mark, had stopped by and we were outside the front of my house, hanging around the driveway near the street. My father was watering the lawn or some plants and several of my sisters were also there. I cannot recall how this happened. I liken it to the battles at Lexington and Concord. Someone fired that shot heard round the world, but no one was ever sure who it was. Heck, 240 years later, the two towns are still in disagreement as to in whose town was fired the actual first shot of the Revolutionary War.
Anyway, a car drove slowly by and some words were exchanged. Within that car were two kids who belonged to a somewhat notorious gang. Now, I don’t mean gang in the modern-day sense, but these were a group of tough kids who worked at a particular ranch and were known as the (I can’t recall the name of the ranch) Gang. Someone said something to someone else and the two kids in the car stopped and got out and more words were exchanged.
Somehow the two of them and Mark and I ended up squaring off. I was opposite the smaller of the two and Mark was to my right and opposite Jerry, the larger of the boys. I honestly have no idea how or why this happened. I don’t remember who said what to whom. But tempers grew, testosterone surged and more words were exchanged. Suddenly Mark punched Jerry in the face and threw a roundhouse to hit the other kid, too. Mark crossed in front of me to engage Jerry and I rushed the smaller kid and began slugging him. He didn’t return a punch and was soon cowering in the ivy at the house across the street. Somewhere behind me, Mark and Jerry’s altercation wound down.
Now, the next morning at school, Bob’s comment of, “Here it comes,” was immediately followed by several of those “gang” members quickly surrounding me and my friends. Before I knew what was happening, Jerry stood before me.
“Come on, Kasal. Right now,” he said clearly and forcefully.
I couldn’t believe he’d risk suspension by fighting me at school. And, in an attempt to ease the tension, I turned slightly to one of my friends on my left and snorted a you’ve-got-to-be-kidding laugh which was abruptly cut short by a dizzying pain in my right temple. On the cartoons, when someone gets thumped, they show stars or little birdies. I saw shapes like atoms. It was really weird. I got clobbered in the temple and, for a split second, everything went black and I saw small spheres orbiting slightly larger ones. And there was even a circular line delineating the orbits! Peculiar.
Well, I knew I’d been hit but I was so stunned that I didn’t feel the ensuing punches Jerry landed on my head. I tried my best to cover my head with both arms and regain some sort of orientation. I tried to sink to the concrete to protect myself while friends tried to hold me up from falling; which gave Jerry more opportunity to wallop me.
I finally made it to the ground and, as quickly as it began, the one-sided fight was over. My experience in the pugilistic arts was quite evident in that I managed to block most of his punches with my head. Still, the only physical consequences of my pummeling were a slight blackening under my left eye and a smashed pair of glasses. Apparently Jerry stepped on them some time during the exchange.
A few days to a week later, someone knocked on our front door. It was Jerry and he asked to speak with my father. I was watching TV in the living room and didn’t acknowledge his presence. After 15 or 20 minutes, my dad called me to the kitchen and told me that Jerry wanted to bury the hatchet. Without comment, I accepted his handshake and he left. But inside, I never forgave him for his unwarranted attack on me that day.
My mother told me that Jerry had come to apologize to my father for the original altercation in the street and for breaking my glasses. He even offered to pay for them with monthly payments. Still, that made no difference to me. I carried a grudge. As I saw it, his exchange the previous night was with Mark, yet he attacked me for no reason and it remained a sore spot in my stomach for years. Even after college and moving on to a professional career, Jerry was always an unjust occurrence in the recesses of my memory.
Then one day, perhaps a decade or more later, and for reasons unbeknownst to me, I was sitting around doing nothing (something at which I excel) and the memory of that fight that Sunday evening came back to me. My mind went through the physical exchange; how Mark threw the first punch and then I took care of the smaller guy. But another part of that event crystallized before my inner eyes. I remembered that, after I left the kid in the ivy, I went back to the other two and found that Mark had Jerry pinned to the ground, effectively ending their exchange. Except that I, in the heat of the moment, knelt quickly and delivered three hard blows to Jerry’s jaw. I hit hard and, with his head on the unforgiving pavement, my blows must have hurt all the more as his face had nowhere to retreat.
How convenient of me to have forgotten that aspect of the fight for all of those years! How easy it was for me to carry that grudge without accepting my part in it. While it’s true that Jerry may have run with a tough crowd, one that placed him in a category of one of the “bad guys” in the eyes of many—and he didn’t have to stop his car that night and escalate the event—he fought that night much more honorably than had I. I actually hit the man when he was down and quite possibly on the verge of agreeing to leave.
One of my pet peeves in life had been when people would be upset over something but refused to recall or accept their part in whatever event about which they were upset. As an outsider in their lives, I could easily see that they were equally, if not more so the cause of their upset as the person they were blaming. But when I’d point out that obvious fact to them, they’d rationalize away their involvement with, “Yeah but he…!” or, “Yes, but she…!” thereby giving them a reasonable excuse for their own actions.
In my case, Jerry had every right to come after me and, as far as I now see it, he probably should have punched me a few more times! And, even after what I’d done, it was he who came to my house to apologize to my father for his actions.
Though, back then, Jerry was one of the tough guys, within him dwelled the seeds of the decent man into whom he has grown. Even in battle, as the perceived bad guy, he acted honorably.
Years later, as we prepared for our 35th high school reunion, some of my former classmates joined one of those websites where everyone can exchange information and purchase tickets to the event. One of the pages was a chat board on which any and all could comment. I hadn’t attended a reunion in 20 years as they always conflicted with my annual fly fishing trip to Montana. But this year, I’d be back the day before the event, so I bought a ticket and began contributing comments on the chat page.
I soon noticed that another of the members was Jerry. Even though I had since (internally) accepted my part in my (well deserved) clobbering, my stomach still performed a minor flip when I saw him there. I wondered if he held a grudge. I wondered if he even remembered. I commented around his comments for a few days and then finally decided, “What the heck?” and made one directly to him. He replied and, for the next week or two from Montana, I checked in daily on the chat board and we each remained part of the conversation, both of us acting as if nothing had ever happened.
It came time for the reunion and I saw him across the room. I approached him and extended my hand. He took it and pulled me to him and gave me a bear hug. I embraced him, as well; the stupid actions of youth forgotten in mellowness of adulthood. The band was loud and it was hard to hear, but we exchanged pleasantries and he introduced me to his wife. I went on my way but something nagged at me that night. After all of those years, I hadn’t apologized to him for hitting him when he was down.
As fate would have it, the band was on a break and he and his wife walked past me and she smiled at me. I reached out and took her by the arm, asking if I could have a moment of her time. I said, “I have something I want to tell you about your husband…” I went on to explain the angry fights of our youths and how for so long I blamed her husband. I told her of how I’d held a grudge because he attacked me for no reason until one day I remembered and acknowledged to myself my part in it. How he came to apologize to my father and never bothered me again. I told her that her husband was an honorable man and, turning my face to him, said I’d never even apologized for hitting him when he was down. I got a bit choked up at that point and I can’t remember what any of us said. And that was the last time I saw them that evening.
You know, when things don’t go our way or we make some silly or embarrassing mistake or we’re unhappy with the situation in which we find ourselves, the first thing we do is to blame someone or something outside of ourselves. We easily make excuses for our actions and blame anyone or anything else we can. We rationalize away any of our wrongdoing and blame anything but ourselves. No one is the villain in their own life. It is always someone or something else.
But, the truth is, everything in our lives is because of our actions and our beliefs. And we’re the only ones who can be brutally honest with ourselves and change the way we think.
A few weeks after the reunion, I received a package at my office. I opened it to find two dozen golf balls. There was a note from Jerry saying he hoped I still played golf and that I’d enjoy the gift. He was offering a token to pay back some indiscretion of our youths. But to me, he owed me nothing. I was the one who was wrong.
Sorry, Jerry. And thank you for the powerful life lesson.