Sunday, April 24, 2011

Bully Pulpit

I used to live near Crockett Road in Williamson County, Tennessee.  Tennesseans lay rightful claim to Davey Crockett, the famous frontiersman for whom this little patch of asphalt was named.  Anyone who grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s can still sing the Disney song “Davey, Davey Crockett, King of the wild frontier”.

A little known fact about Davey is that when he was a US Representative, he opposed Andrew Jackson’s resettling of Native Americans.  History remembers Jackson as a bully, moving the Cherokee and Seminole Nations and others down the trail of tears beyond the Mississippi.

Davey’s stand in Tennessee cost him an election, and he headed to Texas, where he died in San Antonio, defending the Alamo from Antonio L├│pez de Santa Anna, the dictatorial President of Mexico, who history also remembers as a bully.

I was driving home from The Perch one day, all jacked up on my free refills when traffic slowed down.   I noticed a policeman and several other folks walking briskly up the hill on the right side of the road.

What’s the fuss?  I wondered.

Slowing down, I caught a glimpse of a boy thrashing another boy, literally hurling him across the otherwise idyllic landscape.  It was clear that the boy doing the bullying was much bigger and apparently the one with the power.

I wanted to pull my car over and see how it all ended, but it didn’t seem like the right thing to do, just as one shouldn’t rubberneck at the scene of an accident.

The event got me thinking.

Watching the policeman and the vigilant adults hiking up the hill as the action didn’t cease made me wonder what the real situation was.  I supposed it might have been boys at play, roughhousing as many will do.  In a perfect world, the grownups would be greeted by two laughing rascals, who were surprised by the sudden interest.

It looked like serious business.

As the grownups moved closer, the bigger boys seemed intent on finishing the business of showing the smaller boy what for.

I wondered about the dominant boy, the one getting his licks in.  In wealthy Brentwood, TN, I imagined the boy’s banker father shrugging off his son’s violence with a pat answer.  Boys will be boys, he might say, smiling, and perhaps slightly proud that his son prevailed.

Odd phrases get tossed around.  The weaker boy had it coming, asked for it.  Perhaps his father was ashamed of his son for not taking it like a man, or for not winning.

Who knows what they were fighting about?  These days, I’m just happy to see a child out in a field doing anything.  Most children seem to be flexing their thumbs sending text messages or playing games on their phones.  So, maybe the sight of two boys playing outdoors was what all the fuss was about.
Everyone remembers the neighborhood bully of childhood.  My personal bully was several years older, solid as a brick, and equally dumb.  What he lacked in brains, he made up for in brute force, and no one liked seeing him riding down their street on his fat-tired Schwinn with its banana seat, and other Hell’s Angels in the making accessories.  I wasn’t a constant target, like some children become; I just happened to be in the way on one occasion.

I can remember standing in the middle of Roberta Drive, when he rode up, stopped his bike, smiled and slapped me so hard that I rode home bawling.  If I had begged my father to do something about it, I don’t think I would have found an advocate so much as a comforter.  Dad was simply not going to kick any one’s ass, although every boy hopes his dad is capable of it.

My preacher dad was a farm boy from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, who wrestled in high school and college.  Wrestling may have been fairly scandalous in his family, whose ancestors were peace loving Mennonites and River Brethren, traditionally known for being pacifists.

Dad was a killer softball player, swinging like Mickey Mantle, hitting line drives and home runs to his boys’ delight.  But competition wasn’t his deal, other than competing with himself.  He loved the experience of a game, whether it was Scrabble™ or softball, but his attitude was so beautiful and so sportsman-like, that one never felt like he was out for blood, even when he won.

I don’t recall my father teaching me to fight, although I would have appreciated it.  I guess he figured that two scrapping sons would teach each other how to survive, and didn’t want to encourage the idea of settling things with fisticuffs.

It’s not that he was disengaged; I remember him hovering behind me, teaching me to hold a Louisville Slugger, and I remember him pitching baseballs to my brother David and me.

But teaching us combative skills just didn’t square with his spiritual philosophy, or with my mother’s either.  We were never given toy guns for Christmas or birthdays, and I never received the Remco Johnny Reb Cannon I begged for one year (further proof of the South’s magnetic pull on my soul).

Nonetheless, the neighborhood was full of guns; it was a veritable arsenal.  I would borrow Dickie Schmitt’s tommy gun, or Butchie Allen’s Luger, and off to war we’d all go, in The Woods, a few acres of marshy woodlands at the end of our street.

The Woods was the perfect place for a boy to climb trees, chop down skunk cabbage, be the hero of his own war, defeating all comers while returning home with tennis shoes full of black mud from The Brook.

It was as if no other grouping of trees existed apart from The Woods, and seemed as if all rivers and seas flowed toward our neighborhood through The Brook.

We waged war across the span of time, as knights, revolutionaries, civil warriors, and GIs.  We were usually on the same side, shooting at imaginary foes with our plastic artillery.  As the sons of pacifists, we were failures, and we reveled in being armed.

Once, my father discovered the borrowed camouflage tommy gun I’d hidden in the garage between battles.  “What’s this?” he sternly asked.  I think his concern was less that I had a forbidden weapon, and more that I might have stolen it.  It’s an odd memory, and perhaps he really was disturbed about a Weapon of Destruction under his roof.

Years later, the boy who exists down in my soul bought a real gun, a Remington Rolling Block Saddle Carbine from the 1800s, a relic to lean next to a rustic fireplace, hearkening back to days of conquest and trails of tears.  Eventually, I sold it; perhaps I’m more my old man’s son than I thought.


I have a friend who is built like a linebacker.  He can be a bit intimidating if he’s had a few drinks, because he gets surly and loud, argumentative and ungentlemanly.  Once in a while, he talks about “settling things like real men do” and teaching his son something about “how a real man deals with” adversity.

That kind of talk seems so Dark Ages to me, and I’m surprised when I hear these things come out of his mouth.  I wonder about the degree of pain present in a person’s life who wants to strike another human being.   I have a theory that bullies beget bullies, just as dictators beget dictators, and tyrants beget tyrants.

In my line of work, bullies are everywhere.  They usually have a lot of money and a badass lawyer.  The little guys like me usually have no recourse, but to take it on the chin, cut one’s losses, and hopefully avoid bawling while turning tail and heading home.  

Certainly, the temptation to be the Alpha Dog is out there for anyone, and I’ve seen the finest of Sunday churchgoers go ape on Monday, whether they’re taking the Alamo or taking back their promises.

When I think of “settling things like real men do”, I look at the best of men, my Dad.  I never heard him raise his voice to another person, never mind raise a fist.  Dad’s kindness and politeness were marked indelibly on his character, and he wasn’t about to give away his soul in the name of power, money, or property.  He talked about a spiritual inheritance whereas so many of our society speak of entitlement.

Dad’s life was a sermon.  I guess every one’s life is, to one end or another.


  1. I know this is a diversion from the point of the story, but 2 words jumped out at me: "The Woods" That simple phrase brings back so many memories. Anytime it was time to go out and play, it was "lets go to The Woods". Ours was probably a half acre at best, an undeveloped parcel of land behind our house in East Nashville, but it seemed huge as a child. I can't even begin to relate all the countless adventures, races, wars, and conquest that took place there over my 18 years growing up.

  2. Nice tribute to Dad, who never was a bully, but was strong in the face of opposition. Ann-Elise


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