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The whippin’ out behind the gym

With school just now cranking up, here’s a good lesson for the kiddos — and for some adults, too.

As a boy, I never liked to fight. Mama always said, “Just walk away.” I’d do even better. I’d take off and run, if needed. But, alas, sometimes a fight hunts you down and drives you into a corner.

One day when I was about nine, I was taking a break from basketball and watching TV in the air-conditioned section of the Y. A young fella I’d never seen before walked in, looked me over, and said, right out of the blue, “Hey, buddy, do y’think you could whup me?”

I looked at the fella and saw immediately that he was at least two years older than I and bigger. You never know what you will say in those moments, but I just muttered “I dunno” and carried on with what I was doing. I waited for a couple of minutes so I wouldn’t look like the chicken I was, then got up and went to play a game of ping pong. But the walls around those rooms are all glass, so he easily found me again, came right up to me, and said, “No, tell me, do y’think you could whup me?”

I shrugged again and very nonchalantly said, “Prob’ly could,” my tongue obviously engaging without consulting my brain. As soon as those words came out, the boy grabbed me by the shirt, said “Let’s go,” and dragged me out behind the gym. 

We weren’t alone either, because you can’t keep the news of a good fight away from the crowd. A dozen spectators gathered around before the fight started, many of them being friends of my big brothers Tim and Wayne. Once out of earshot of any adults, my newfound friend proceeded to beat the tar out of me. It must’ve been hard to watch.

But he made a mistake. During the whipping, he reared back and kicked me in the shin. That flat made me mad, for the first time. 

I didn’t mind getting beat up, I guess; but a kicking in the shin really hurts, and I started crying. But I started doing something else, too. I started swinging. I went crazy and tore into him like a hound dog on a pork chop, swinging at anything I could see move, tears running down my face all the while.

It didn’t take long before the boy turned and ran away, perhaps remembering something his own mom had told him. But he didn’t get far. The older boys grabbed him and put him through some added embarrassment right on the front porch of the Y, making him admit how scared he was and that he didn’t want any more of what he just got, which was nothing but a big can of getting-your-tail-handed-to-you — and that’s a nice way of saying that. I wasn’t much, but I was highly protective of my shin.

It’s a funny thing — I never saw that boy again. I never got his name, never learned where he came from, and never knew why he did what he did. It was just a 15-minute encounter, and he was gone as quickly as he came. But, when he left, he had learned a valuable lesson: Being a big-ol’ 11-year-old bully isn’t cool, after all. Really, it’s not cool at any age to be smug and to think you’re “all that.” 

It’s been half a century ago, but I hope that boy learned his lesson out behind the gym. I hope he went home, rubbed some good old-fashioned humility on his wounds, then headed back out into the world a different young man.

Truth is, if we don’t open up our own can of humility and apply it generously, don’t be surprised one day when somebody opens up that other kind of can and hands it to us, leaving us and our pride to go home sporting nothing but a bloody nose and a beet-red ear.

Just ask my humble young friend from down at the Y.