This is the third in a multi-part series on the subject of the various great and memorable enemies I have had the pleasure of knowing over the years, from the earnest gibbering of schoolyard bullies to the courtly dance of the merely ritualistic antagonist.
In this installment we learn the true answer to one bully's rhetorical demands, and get our first taste of the baffling inaction of onlookers.
Please see also Part I and Part II.
I changed schools in the winter. My new school, like my old school, was a lumpy mass of greying snow with dirty windows and twin ice pastures out front and behind. My new schoolmates, like my old schoolmates, were colourful waddlers with fluffy extremities, swaddled and packed within an inch of their lives by their mothers into astronaut-fresh envelopes of wool and down.
Come morning recess we were freed to tramp outside in the field, breath fogging out into the air ahead of us and the snow squeaking beneath our boots. My new classmates showed me the ropes. They said we should set to building a snow fort post-haste.
"Snow forts are fun!" I said.
"Snow forts are a necessary element of our defense," corrected Jack, pushing his foggy glasses up against the bridge of his nose with a thick mitten.
As construction proceeded I noticed that a number of kids were congregating by an impressive ice fortress on the opposite side of the field. They appeared to be pre-rolling massive stashes of snowballs. "Are we going to have a war?" I asked excitedly.
"Yes," said Jack.
The assault was launched in the lunch-hour. One minute I was giving my granola bar to a new Scott in exchange for some kind of plasticized pseudo-fruit snack, and the next minute a keening hoard of snowsuited warriors was crossing the field in two tight squadrons. I was excited. I scooped up a snowball and grinned.
A boy named Percy shouted, "Incoming!"
Scott was dashed across the face with a snowball. His eyes started to well up with tears so I was beginning to think he was excessively wimpy even for a Scott when I was myself walloped in the back of the neck. It stung fiercely and I cried out in alarm -- the snowball was laced with hunks of ice.
The invading army swarmed over our front-lines, their fell cry crisp in the cold air: "Gifties are gay retards!"
And they were upon us. After their initial volley the infantry dropped to the ground to scoop up fresh snowballs to feed the second wave, hammering a group of us into a tight corner near the west end of the fort. Our own supplies of snowballs were woefully inadequate, and we were unable to build new ones as we had overmined the crust around us to reinforce our walls.
The hoard kicked down those walls in a matter of minutes and then parted as a tiny boy in a giant red parka walked over to assess the situation. Though he was very short the parka was both red enough and large enough to lend his presence weight. This was the first time I set my eyes on Hedgie. A chuckling fat boy in an unfortunately snot-coloured scarf loped at his heels. That was his sidekick, Chad.
They wanted to know what my name was, but whatever I tried to reply they over-rode me with accusatory nonsense. "What's your name, Einstein?"
"My name is --"
"What's with all the nerd-talk, brainiac?"
"You're a gay nerd, retard."
"What's your problem?"
"You are, gifty. Stop being such a nerd."
Hedgie concluded the conversation by grabbing me by the back of the neck and grinding my face into the ice. Scott interfered and was shoved aside by Chad. Wriggle as I might I could not twist my snowsuit-bound limbs around to free myself, and I experienced a panicky moment of helplessness. As Hedgie tried to turn me around for another face scrubbing I spotted Jack coming out from cover and approaching us. He walked right up to Hedgie and tapped him on the shoulder.
"Excuse me," said Jack, "but I believe your epidermis is showing."
Hedgie objected to his use of nerd-talk, so Jack quoted Pythagoras' theorem. Hedgie released me in favour of pushing Jack's face into the snow. I was grateful but confused -- our situation had really not advanced much for his sacrifice. "What do we do now?" I whispered to Scott.
"Just wait," said Scott. "Hedgie's gonna make Jack mad."
Suddenly Hedgie was knocked backwards. He landed heavily on the ice and skidded against the ruins of our fort. Jack arose before him, his face red and his taped glasses hanging around his neck by their durable strap. He let out a dreadful caterwaul and then began hysterically striking out at anything within his range. He punched Chad. He kicked Hedgie in the stomach. He even pushed Percy, even though Percy was on our side.
"Holy smokes," I said. "Jack is the Incredible Hulk!"
Thus was I indoctrinated to the two great opposing warriors of Prestign Heights: Jack the shameless genius, and Hedgie the boy who would restore hope and dignity for normal kids everywhere by kicking his ass. As we took off our coats and boots in the cloakroom Scott and Percy explained to me how Jack had had a lot of severe behavioral problems before they figured out he was a genius, and throwing violent tantrums was still one of his trademark moves.
"You have to keep your distance though, once he goes off," Percy warned, rubbing his bruised shoulder with a wince. "His targeting scanners get screwed up."
Jack was a good friend. Palling around with him was a mixed blessing, of course, for while he could be a potent anti-bully weapon he was also a bully magnet. Throughout our many subsequent encounters with Hedgie and Chad I learned much from Jack and his refusal to give in to intimidation. "Being hit in the face hurts less than feeling upset all day because you were too scared to take a measly hit in the face," reasoned Jack.
It was seldom necessary for Jack to lose his temper. Just knowing that the capability existed was sufficient to bolster the courage of those near him -- knowing we had an ultimate weapon if our backs were up against the wall inspired us to stand firm, to resist intimidation, and to rescue others from harassment.
One day when Jack was at home with the flu Scott and I were ambushed by Hedgie and his minions. I was muscled into a tight corner behind the east doors, squeezed between a wall and a garbage can, and repeatedly kicked by three boys at once.
"You're so gay, gifty!" they mentioned. "Think you're so smart now, eh?"
At one point I caught sight of Scott on the periphery of the melee. He seemed hypnotized. I thought perhaps he was waiting for a choice opportunity to make a precision strike, but as the seconds ticked by it became apparent that he wasn't going to do anything but act as a paralyzed witness. "Help me!" I yelled. "I'm not Jack!"
Noticing me noticing Scott, Chad menaced him and Scott ran away.
My hopes extinguished. I was completely at the mercy of The Enemy. Hedgie was delighted by my chagrin. "Got something weird to say?" he asked me as he kicked.
"No," I admitted.
A year later my friends and I were drifting along the field enjoying our lunches as we strolled when Hedgie ran up to us, his giant red parka uncharacteristically unzipped due to the unusually balmy weather. We steeled ourselves for attack but Hedgie did not plow into us or pester us with aggressive rhetorical questions. Instead what he said was, "The space shuttle just blew up and fell into the ocean!"
Percy said, "He's lying."
"No way!" added Scott.
"That's impossible," agreed both Steves.
Jack just kept looking at Hedgie. "For real?" he asked.
"Let's go see," said Jack with a nod. We all ran back toward the school where a crowd of kids were pressing their faces into the windows of one of the classrooms where Mr. Bertram had had a television wheeled in.
The screen showed a great Y-shaped cloud of grey and orange smoke and the text running along the bottom of the screen said, Shuttle Challenger destroyed - all hands lost.
I said, "Holy smokes!"
"I told you," said Hedgie.
"It's true," said Jack. "Hedgie was right."
And Hedgie never bothered a single one of us again. I can only guess that somebody had once made him feel stupid, and being acknowledged as right about the space shuttle made him feel smart. For all of his strange, nonsensical questions there really was something he needed from us: acceptance.
If only all beasts could be so easily quelled.
Posted by Cheeseburger Brown at 08:13