Friday, October 22, 2004


The Underdog (Being A Series of Random Anecdotes)

I've known many underdogs in my time. Lots of them have stayed that way, and it's sad to see. But watching the ones who rise, witnessing their triumph, man, there's nothing better. It's more satisfying than getting a splinter out, or finally making it to the bathroom after an hour of traffic and the surety of incontinence seemed ordained.

For boys especially, I think many of the defining underdog moments of our lives come out of personal trials and contests against other (often bigger, meaner, but not necessarily smarter) boys. I know dozens of guys who exacted revenge, quiet and not so, on their persecutors. With perhaps one memorable exception (in which my opponent suffered a sudden, almost catastrophic asthma attack just as he was about to pound me to gel, and I was put in the very Marvel Comicslike dilemma of either taking my revenge while he was helpless--the guy was way bigger than me, a bane on the school, and deserved whatever he got, on this you must trust me--or trying to help him), I always managed to talk my way out of fights, which I suppose is not an example of the underdog rising, but it kept me healthy.

It did not, however, always prevent me from getting into trouble. For a time in 4th grade, I was part of a group of kids who were regularly preyed on by a pack of no-neck, left-back 8th graders (some of whom were old enough to quit school and join the Army, I'm sure). It became their practice to catch us in the locker room, just after gym class, and shake us down for whatever change we had in our pockets, or to rough us up if we were thoughtless enough to come to class with no money. I was very rarely the direct target of this gang of thugs (at this point it's worth mentioning my older brother who, despite the fact that we barely ever acknowledged each other's existence at school, could be counted on to put in the occasional last-minute Fonzie-saves-Richie-style appearance and rescue my skinny ass. At the beginning of the school year I'm talking about, he laid hold of a Neanderthal 7th grader who was intent on vexing me, and deposited the miscreant, partially folded, into a nearby trashcan, from which he could not be extricated, not even by our gym teacher, and she could bench-press more than anyone in town. It gave my brother instantaneous street cred, so much so that some of that cred rubbed off on me, where it remained like a protective aura…until my brother went off to the high school).

This day, we had no guardian angel watching us, and the older, bigger boys were sporting a particularly mean streak. They brought the bulk of that meanness to bear on poor Jimmy. Jimmy was close to being the class cootie. He had almost no friends (we didn't even like him; my friends and I were just too nice to tell him to bug off) and was the shortest, goofiest kid in school. Honestly, I think we let him pal around with us because, well, if you had seen my gawky crew, you might have understood. We were no chick magnets ourselves. Truth be told, if Jimmy weren't around, one of us would have been the class cootie, so I guess in a bassackwards sort of way we were all grateful he was there. I had no idea.

So there we are. It's late in the year, but Indian summer reigns. The windows are open and a warm air blows in, turning our sweat cold and giving us goosebumps (having a gang of ogres cornering you for pocket change also adds to the effect). In the hazy half-light, the ogres surround poor Jimmy, who has no money, never has money, they know it, but it's not really about money is it, so he's the target.

My friends and I are just helpless. All three of us beanpoles wouldn't be enough to fill one pantleg of the biggest of them, a real farm-boy bruiser named Bruce who this day incites his crew to violence beyond mere pushing around. He nods to one of his thugs, and the kid jabs Jimmy in the gut.

Watching and hearing someone else get the wind knocked out of them and knowing there's just nothing you can do about it is as bad if not worse than being the one who gets the wind knocked out of them. At least when it happens to you, you're so focused on the fact that you can't breathe and the dawning realization that you're seconds from death by asphyxiation that there's really no room for fear or panic.

Jimmy didn't get the wind knocked out of him, though.

What I realized later, and his presence of mind amazes me to this day, is that he merely let them think that. They did hurt him. In fact, they hit a very sensitive nerve cluster that was causing an involuntary action at that very moment. We just didn't know it. Neither did his attackers.

Up til the punch, Jimmy had been backing away from his assailants. But our first hint that something was up happened when he stopped moving away, and started towards the boys. In fact, he was heading straight for Bruce.

Bruce had this big smirk on his face and was about to say something. But Jimmy opened his mouth first.

Up until that moment, I had never conceived that vomit could be used as an offensive weapon. I mean really, who would?

Well Jimmy did. In that moment, he was like a samurai. He was going down, his body in the grip of a force beyond his control, but he managed to stare the darkness down for the precious seconds necessary to make it to his target and launch his final, terrible counterattack.

What happened next was a bit of a blur, but I do remember us squealing in triumph (everyone in school heard it), and I remember this awful species of horror across Bruce's spattered face, as even his own cohorts abandoned him in disgust and loathing.

It was a moment beyond anyone's experience (and this was a solid decade before the film Stand By Me, where Wil Wheaton's character spins the tale of the fat kid who revenges himself on the cruel townfolk by deliberately throwing--and I do mean throwing--a pie-eating contest. That's as close as I've come to seeing this moment being re-enacted, and it still doesn't come all that close. Still, love the movie, Wil. Love WWDN.) Bruce's mind simply was incapable of forming a tactical response. He had tried "fight", and look what it got him. All he had left was "flight", so flee he did. Right out the door and into the arms of our gym teacher, who was coming to see what all the racket was about.

It was a transcendent moment for Jimmy. He went from cootie to cool in the time it took the story to spread throughout the school. In the eyes of every boy of a certain age, nothing is more fantastic than the body's ejecta and effluvium. We couldn't have been more impressed with Jimmy if he had somehow transformed his nose into a high-speed booger machine gun, or killed Bruce with his flatulence. Any man reading this who can remember what 10 was like will understand what I mean.

The moment passed, as they all do, and at least for the few more years that I lived in that town, Jimmy still had a reputation as a goofy kid. But no one ever laid a hand on him again (and I'm not clear what became of Bruce, or where he ended up. "In Leavenworth, I suppose," Garrison Keillor says of his bullies, and so I say of mine). It wasn't just that Jimmy had barfed on the biggest, meanest kid in school. It was that he meant to do it. Looking back, I realize now that we all were impressed--and just a wee bit intimidated--by the resolve implicit in that act.

I haven't thought of Jimmy in over 25 years--no, that's not true. I thought about him and his incredible act of will one other time: about 3 or 4 years after the incident, in another school, 2,000 miles away, as I watched Patrick Reilly turn blue on the white tiles of the boys' room floor. A second earlier, he had been so excited about finally cornering me and smashing me in the face, his lungs went into spasm and down he went. This kid was every bit as bad as Bruce, and were our positions reversed, I'd be left to gasp my last on the filthy floor of an empty toilet. I wanted to leave him there, I did. But for a fleeting second, I'm sure I thought of Jimmy, and committed my own act of will. I grabbed Patrick by his grubby uniform sweater and dragged him down the hall to the nurse's office. As it turned out, it was the best thing that I could have done. Word got out that I had saved the bully's life, and for the next five years of grammar and high school, no one ever let him forget it. It wasn't as good a puking on him, but it was close.

Thanks, Jimmy. You weren't just any underdog. You were my hero.

I've just stumbled across your blog, and this was brilliant. I'm humbled.
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