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Saturday, November 12, 2011

It started on the playground when I made fun of a kid named Eddie.

We were in fifth grade and playing my favorite recess game, Socko, a more manly form of Dodgeball. It involved throwing a soccer-sized rubber ball at the opposing team across the line. If you hit a guy with the ball he was out. But if he managed to catch and hold onto the ball, you were out. Speed and power were of the essence.

This day Eddie was on the opposing team. He was the tallest kid in class and a little slow afoot. To get in his head I started loping around my side of the line pretending to be Eddie. My teammates started to laugh. Never one to give up the stage when the going is good, I continued my pantomime.

Finally, Eddie had had enough. "You wanna fight?" he said.

This challenge was issued in the full hearing of everyone on the Socko court. Things suddenly got very quiet, like that old E. F. Hutton commercial. Activity ceased as the crowd awaited my answer. The code of the schoolyard dictated that I not back down. To refuse would have marked me a coward, especially since I'd started the whole thing.

So I said, "Yeah."

News of the fight spread like a Southern California wildfire. It was whispered in the bathrooms, shouted in the hallways, discussed over peanut butter sandwiches in the lunch area. By the end of the day it seemed like the entire student body of Serrania Avenue Elementary School had turned out to the regular fight venue, across the street on a grassy lot.

I was nervous. While I had a quickness advantage, Eddie had height and reach on me. Also, his fists also looked like canned hams.

And so the circle formed and the two ten-year-old adversaries put up their dukes.

I got in the first lick, a right to Eddie's mouth. He shook his head a couple of times and the next thing I knew my world went red. One of those canned hams smacked me square in the snout and I started bleeding like the Red Sea.

This ended the fight as everybody recoiled in horror. Including Eddie. He did not follow up or come in for the kill. Everything just fizzled.

I walked home with my hands over my nose. My mom just about had a heart attack when she saw me caked with blood. But ten-year-old boys are supposed to do that to their mothers every now and then. It's a story as old as mankind itself.

Later that evening Eddie's mom called my mom. My mom called me to the phone. Eddie came on.

"You okay?" Eddie said.

"You gave me a bloody nose," I said.

"Sorry," Eddie said. "You gave me a fat lip."

"Sorry," I said.

There was a slight pause, then Eddie said, "Wanna be friends?"

"Okay," I said.

"Okay," Eddie said. "Bye."


I'm sure what happened was this. Eddie's mom saw her son's ballooned lip and had the same reaction my mom did. And then she said to him something like, "You are going to call and apologize."

And Eddie did.

I never forgot that, because you don't forget acts of decency. They seem rarer and rarer these days. The idea that there is a certain code of behavior for a civilized society is now more of a quaint notion than a moral imperative. And that's just a shame.

Eddie moved away the next year so we weren't in the same school anymore. Life went on. I retired from schoolyard fighting. I didn't see the point. I preferred my nose just the way it was.

Then, in high school, my basketball team went to play a non-conference game in another county. We came out on the court for our warm ups and there on the other team's bench sat Eddie. He looked exactly the same, only now he was about 6'8" and his hands were the size of dining room tables.

I ran over and stood in front of him.

He looked up and took about two seconds to recognize me. Then he broke out into a big smile and said, "Jim!"

He stood up and put out his hand and I took it. No longer were we throwing fists with them.

Because we were friends.

I thought about Eddie this week. It was a bad one in our country, with news of horrific acts performed at a respected university on the watch of a beloved football coach. There was death and violence in tent cities, and continuing breakdown of civil discourse in our political realm. Sometimes it seems like the whole society has a collective nosebleed after a getting punched in the face. And there doesn't seem to be much we can do about it.

But we can. Be kind to somebody this week. It'll probably shock them. And don't be afraid to say you're sorry if you've messed up. We flat out need more decency around here. Let it start with us.


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