“You boys get over here!”, my stepfather shouted.
The boys stopped and turned. My stomach turned too.
These four boys always wanted to fight me. I just had to dodge them on the weekends I visited my Mom, and for months this had worked. But today they surprised me as I left Easter services — they cornered me and beat me with a baseball bat. I know how terrible that sounds but you should know it was a measured violence. They never aimed for my head, and while there were four of them, they passed around a single bat. It was during a sloppy bat handoff that I broke away and ran home.
When I got home, my then stepfather felt the best thing to do was to find the boys and have each of them fight me one at a time. I half-heartedly agreed. Given that he was prone to measured violence with a bat too, I figured he understood their minds better than I.
“This has got to stop, boys! Matt’s gonna fight you now, but it has to be one at a time. Now who’s fighting first?”
The boys glanced at each other and then Bubba stepped forward.
Bubba was the biggest boy in the group, with long black hair and a penciled-in mustache. I was eleven at time and he was a few years my senior. He unexpectedly started a sort of primal display. He took off his shirt and socks and started shadowboxing in his jeans, flexing and chanting, “I’m gonna float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”
I was confused. I had expected Bubba to just run over and start pounding me. As I watched his odd dance, deciding what to do, I could hear little kids enjoying the Easter egg hunt up the hill, my sister among them (it still gives me a laugh to think about the absurdity of this moment). Below us, just down the hill, I noticed a long row of thorns and thought — bare-skinned Bubba is going to hate those a lot more than I will!
I tackled him straight down the hill into the thicket. During the fight, when Bubba tried to tear us both away, I swiveled and yanked us in deeper. We fought each other until we were simply too exhausted to keep fighting. All the exposed skin on Bubba’s upper body was etched with bright blood, and when we walked up the hill to the others, he was limping from cuts on his feet.
I stood there, silent and tired, wondering who would be next, but the moment had passed and the others weren’t interested. Bubba just put on his clothes and they all walked away. They never bothered me again.
Fifteen years later, I shared this story with my then girlfriend during a road trip to see an exhibit on Egypt at the Memphis Pyramid (which later turned from an educational center into a Bass Pro Shop). She wanted to see the town for herself, so we dropped by on the way back.
The town looked so much more run down than I remembered. I kept wondering to myself if the town had changed or I had. I once asked a Sunday school teacher, “Wouldn’t hell just feel normal after a while? I’ll have eternity to get used to it.” Even as a kid, I realized how adaptive people can be.
To my surprise, driving through the old neighborhood fifteen years after the fight, we saw Bubba! He still had the same long black hair, receded with age to the top of his head. He was just sitting on a cinderblock, in a yard with tall grass, with a thousand-mile stare. He didn’t even react to our car idling by. I thought about getting out of the car and talking to him but didn’t.
I would have told him there were no hard feelings. I would have told him that I understand it wasn’t personal. I learned later about the beatings his father gave him.
As a kid, I misunderstood evolution. The phrase “survival of the fittest” made me think of the fitness you’d find at a gym, and all the 80’s Schwarzenegger movies reinforced this wrong-headed idea. After the bullets, explosions and smoke cleared, Arnold was always the sole survivor. The fitness Darwin described, of course, was referring to the fit between an organism and its environment. As an adult, I try to create environments where more people fit in. I learned as a child that when people are put in inhuman, stupid, and violent environments, they do what they can to get by. Evolution teaches us that people in harsh environments really only have three options: adapt, migrate, or perish. Plants, immovable, have even fewer options. I find it reassuring that in the whole evolutionary history of plants, only some evolved thorns.