“Open your mouth and close your eyes, and you will get a big surprise,” chanted Carol in a sweet tone, using her ‘I’m two years older and much wiser than you’ voice. Though I was hopeful for a piece of candy I was sure she was planning to share with me, I can at the very least attest that she wasn’t lying when she called what I got ‘a big surprise.’
My desiccated second grade tongue thereafter knew that, as light and fluffy as dandelion seeds appeared while floating gracefully across sporadic summer breezes, their taste was relatively bitter and didn’t as easily blow off a sticky, wet tongue. Why, I was as foul as the fluff balls flying out of my mouth – mad enough to ball up my two little fists as if I was going to use them. You see, Carol might have been older and she might have been taller, but I considered myself more athletically proficient. I came to this conclusion because (a) I was already in my second year of softball, (b) I could make foul shots on my basketball goal when allowed to move the line to where I wanted it to be, and (c) I had sat religiously with my dad through rounds of boxing matches being punched out on our television set. In contrast, Carol’s favorite sport was shopping with her mother every Saturday. Oh, and her dance recitals (tap, jazz, ballet, and anything else that required sparkly costumes and massive amounts of pictures) – these were responsible for the only exposure to arts and culture in my life. I know. Amazing how two girls who grew up next door to one another and rode to church together every Sunday for their entire one-digit lives and beyond could have such drastically different lifestyles, isn’t it?
But there were those strange and special moments when our interests did converge (or maybe collide). I was fascinated when Carol’s mother took a group of us to the curtained, paneled theater in town to see Gone with the Wind. I remember feeling reasonably satisfied, long after intermission when the blood flow had returned to my rear quarters, to hear Clark Gable, as Rhett Butler, utter his final words to Scarlett: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Though I wasn’t sure I bought that he necessarily meant it, that’s how I was personally feeling at the moment. I have since recanted and am thankful for that dose of Southern culture I was forced to swallow that day.
Speaking of swallowing…that reminds me of the beginning of my story and how Carol forced my 8-year-old self to swallow ripened dandelions on a stick that weren’t Gone with the Wind. This was another of those moments when we became more alike than I’d earlier suspected, as I found, in our collision, I wasn’t the only one making a fist. Back then, Carol was taller and she was older (okay, she’s still older), but she recognized that I was madder. Though she might not have understood the concept of dandelion-induced adrenaline, I’m guessing my reddened cheeks and stiffened body progressively plunging in her direction tipped her off to some potential threat.
My rapid onslaught came to an immediate halt, though, as I studied the fist she’d made – the one with her thumb tucked neatly against the palm of her hand, snuggled beneath her other four fingers. If that wasn’t odd enough, the moment she took a warning swing – the kind that says back off before I really decide to make contact – I fell out into full-blown laughter. Oh, I’d seen boxers make hook swings that came around from the side, but never in my lengthy 8 years of life had I witnessed anyone bring an entire arm back sideways from the shoulder cuff and come around, straight-armed, at a 180-degree angle. While wiping my tear-streaked face (tears caused from gut-busting guffawing), I tried to explain the problem to Carol with her swing and how she was leaving her entire body and face open to be assailed. At this, she became the one too angry to listen. She crossed her arms, swung her body around in a direction opposite mine, and stormed up to her house without another word (well, maybe she gracefully skipped a couple of times along the way).
Ashamedly, I must confess that I tried to start a few fights with her after that day, just so I could find out if her round-about side-armed throw could really do any damage. I had a hypothesis to test (even if I couldn’t pronounce that word with two missing front teeth). Just as I suspected, I became pretty successful in collecting my data. I discovered I could always either get out of the way in time or else, in a worse-case scenario, my upper back would take the brunt of the blow and I could still convince myself I was walking away unscathed. (Lest you think Carol was being a bully, I must speak up in her defense and admit I was ruthless in my scientific methodology; though, eventually, I was able to narrow it down to a couple of key phrases to reduce my efforts. I’m sure B.F. Skinner would’ve applauded my behavioral astuteness in the matter. ‘Brace face’ probably created the most rapid Pavlovian response.)
Essentially, by the time I’d reached 5th grade, I had no use for Carol’s side-armed throw in mock battle any more than I might have had use for a side-armed throw from my position at 3rd base (of which I’m certain our pitcher was most appreciative). I was convinced by neither’s effectiveness. Until one day…
There was a boy who was two years older than me who lived a couple of streets away. Some of the boys would come to our street occasionally for a game of backyard football or kickball because of the other boys on our street (and maybe one of the attractive teenage girls who always made a guest appearance). To assure enough players, it always ended up being a co-ed game in which at least one of my other friends of the tomboy-female persuasion and I would play. Carol often interceded as some sort of referee (though she knew nothing about football) because she was the tallest and the most mature in the group. Her reasoning seemed to suffice in solving many of our arguments and dilemmas.
So this boy (whom I’ll call John because that’s a rather common name – oh, and because it just happened to be his) decided that he would pick on me for whatever reason there was to do so that day (which I’ve managed to effectively block out over the years, but I promise that I didn’t call him ‘brace face’). The most likely reason I can’t remember any other detail is because of the one that stands out so vividly in my memory. John, standing what seemed to be a head taller than me, had followed me up to my driveway and was continuing to harass me. Carol wasted no time pursuing the situation, bringing her more mature reasoning and shape with her. At some point, it became obvious that neither 7th grade girly logic nor figure was going to resolve the matter. (I believe that point was when Carol prudently told John he should go home, and he haphazardly replied that she could make him.) My eyes widened in horror as I watched John take a threatening step towards Carol and saw Carol respond by tucking her thumb in under her fingers and cock her arm. I knew she was toast. But before I could get my own fists up and convince myself I could float like a butterfly (or maybe a dandelion seed) and sting like a bee (or maybe kick a shin), Carol was in the midst of delivering her package. Only this time, she didn’t swat at the air, an arm, or even an upper back. Her aim was tried and true – a full force, direct hit into…John’s face, in the exact spot where his braces resided beneath his now bloodied lip. I was in shock. Despite the fact that he’d helped her immensely by walking right into the blow, I couldn’t believe how effective it had actually been. As evidence, there was John, bent over, holding his lip, incredulously crying out in staccato phrases, “You hit me! My braces! I’m bleeding!” Then he turned and headed quickly for home, obviously succumbing to the reality that he had, indeed, been made to do so (just as he’d requested).
I had a newfound respect for the thumb tuck and the side-arm throw. (Not that I could ever bring myself to use this technique, mind you. I just no longer made fun of it or tried any further personal experiments concerning its effectiveness. I was convinced Carol wielded her weapon well.) Mostly, I had a newfound respect for the philosophy that you’d better not step onto hallowed friendship ground without expecting to endure the wrath of protection. Carol and I could pretend to fight amongst ourselves every day of the week if we wished; but apparently when someone outside of the circle stepped in with an intent to harm, all the rules were going to change.
The best part was that Carol never suffered any payback for what she’d done. You see, John understood that he was in a position in which only two girls had witnessed the fall of his harrying conduct. He actually impressed me with his wisdom of never bringing up the incident again. Carol would’ve impressed me with her lack of bragging except I understood that beating up boys didn’t fit well with her ballet pirouetting persona. I decided to take the high road and let the subject go unmentioned too (except to brag on her later in life for coming to my rescue). Astonishing how civil John was on the bus for all those years thereafter.
Note that this post is in honor of my friend for her birthday, aka Pearl Harbor Day – forever to be remembered as a day of infamy (er, the Pearl Harbor Day part, I mean…of course.)
NOW PLEASE NOTE: This is, in fact, a true story (as I recall it, of course) that is not told to emphasize bullying or how to bring down a bully. Nor is it told for the purpose of promoting the thumb-tucked, side-armed punch. Let me re-emphasize that last point, as I’d still never be caught dead using it. As for the bullying, might I suggest, if you take anything from this story on that subject, take the Rhett Butler approach and simply determine to…walk away & let the matter be gone with the wind.