Saddle Shoes and Knuckle Sandwiches

This is a chapter from the new book I’m currently working on (feedback welcome):  

I was in kindergarten when I got into my first fight. For a week straight another boy had tormented me about my shoes. Looking back, he had a pretty good point. When my sneakers finally gave out I was forced to wear an abomination known as saddle shoes- black and white leather monstrosities that were frequently featured as part of cheerleading costumes.

I have no idea where the shoes came from. My mother is far from a vicious person so I’m sure she had no desire to humiliate me, but we were poor and I can only assume that she had no other options.

Perhaps some cheerleader got booted from the squad and threw them out her car window in protest and disgust. Maybe my mother found them in the yard and said a quick prayer of thanks that she had a perfectly good pair of shoes for her eldest to wear to school. If the shoes were an answer to prayer, God really cares nothing about fashion (which would help explain why evangelists always have such bad suits).

However, the boy who sat across from me on that bus in rural West Virginia obviously cared deeply about fashion. I picture him today as a pretentious shoe salesman at some high-end men’s clothing store, turning up his nose in derision when anyone asks if they carry saddle shoes.

But at that time I pictured him quite differently- bloody and crying beneath the fury of my justice. Every day as his jibes intensified-

‘Timmy’s wearing girly shoes. Are you wearing panties too?’

I planned and plotted. I fumed and formulated. I sulked and schemed. And one day I acted. I told another boy that I was going to fight the little fashionista and within minutes it was the talk of the school. I learned, at that moment, one of the foundational truths of the universe- a spectacle offering the possibility of violence or humiliation draws people quicker than rotting carrion attracts vultures.

To my horror and growing dread the carrion seekers flocked in a roiling mass at the far end of the playground by the time I was dismissed for recess. Sammy Spiffy Shoes stood at the center of the loose throng, looking serious and terrifying.

We stood several paces apart staring at each other, not really sure what to do next. Silence descended over the crowd. My mouth felt sticky and dry and my heart was racing. Suddenly someone yelled ‘fight.’ My opponent and I rushed at each other. And just like that it was over.

My next memory is sitting on the ground listening to the crowd recount my humiliation as they were shooed away. My head was tucked between my knees as I sat watching drops of my blood fall in a steady stream from my split nose and drip audibly into a growing emerald pool. And this is one of those things that my parents failed to prepare me for. You see I wasn’t allowed to watch TV and my opponent had obviously been weaned on Bruce Lee movies. If I had been better educated I might have known that it is inadvisable to charge an opponent who is in the midst of performing the dreaded flying crane kick.

It is easy for me to smile about it now, but at the time it was utterly humiliating. I was so soundly beaten that I became the footnote of an instant playground legend. History is written by the conquerors and good old Sammy’s stock rose dramatically that day, his feet firmly set on a path to shoe sales glory. My stock, on the other hand, plummeted in true Black Friday fashion. From some of the girls I received sympathy, which compounded my embarrassment. From other boys I got derision and the reputation as an easy mark. This fight had been my first, but it was hardly my last.

In the years that followed, at the nearly dozen different schools I would attend, this episode was replayed a number of times. The cast of conquerors changed, but Tim the vanquished received numerous encores. I played France with glasses to many a crowd of vultures. There is a palpable essence that emanates from fear; a scent of docile terror that attracts bullies, who intent on masking their own feelings of inadequacy, follow it like sharks on the blood trail of a wounded fish. Much of my childhood was spent, like Nemo, ineffectually flapping my bum fin in a vain attempt to outrun the smell.

I spent my elementary and middle school years as the perpetual new kid, the outsider, making it difficult to conceal myself and my insecurities. I was also poor. It certainly didn’t help that my clothes were never quite right or that my teeth were too large for my face. Sometimes when I see pictures of myself from those years I’m tempted to bully me. That insecure smirk seems to invite it.

But what really provoked it was my implicit surrender. I took it. I didn’t tell anyone and I didn’t fight back. I tried to pretend it was part of a joke that I was in on. That initial fight convinced me, for many years to come, that I was unable to defend myself.

I never fully recovered from the humiliation of the incident that left me with a nearly manic aversion to confrontation. It also left me with a compulsion to hide my fear and weakness- from family, friends, or anyone else who might have helped me.

When someone beat me up or performed some act of ritual humiliation I laughed it off. If someone asked where the bruises came from or why my shirt was ripped, I lied. I made myself into a victim but protected that fact with fierce determination. No one could be allowed to see just how weak and cowardly I was.

But I always knew. I could pretend, but the truth was always there, taunting me. I tried reinventing myself over and over, through different types of music, fashion and friends. I buried myself in fantasy, imagining a world where others looked at me in admiration, not derision. I would sit for hours thinking up elaborate storylines that featured me as hero, rather than punch line.

Now if I’m going to be completely honest this is all a bit whiny. One might jump to the conclusion that I haven’t even revealed anything damaging and I’m already making excuses. That is not completely unfair. Whenever a person begins to assess bad choices and behavior, the temptation is to add ‘yes but,’ and thus begin down the road to rationalization. I don’t wish to journey there. I do think it is important to provide context for behavior. Without motivation tragedy becomes farce.

And part of what would lead me down the paths that I have chosen began on a schoolyard playground in rural West Virginia. But I must point out that I chose to fight Sammy Spiffy Shoes. It wasn’t his fault he was better at it than I (or that he had impeccable taste). And I dare not blame the string of bullies who followed. In the years that bind the humiliated kid to the divorced father trying to make sense of his regret, I would do much worse.

Close Encounters of the Bottled Kind


When I was in my twenties I used to regularly utter the phrase: “I won’t live to see 30.”


Given my propensity for excessive living, that seemed a rather likely bet. At the time I made this morbid claim with a certain pride. I was living the rock n roll lifestyle and would go out in a blaze of glory (or puddle of puke) like Joplin, Hendricks, Morrison or Moon.


I enjoyed drugs, but I always knew that alcohol would be the vehicle that would carry me into oblivion. I liked to drink and could never quite get enough. I would drink until everything was gone or I passed out.


And I had many close brushes. More often than I care to recall I awoke to find myself caked in vomit, lying on a saturated pillow with chunks of gorge dried to my face.


Even then, in my sheer recklessness, I knew how close the reaper had passed. Every time it happened I would feel an icy shudder pass slowly down my spine. After all, the stories of the rock gods of that era tended to end in said musical deity drowning in his/her own bile while passed out.


But God obviously had other plans for me. Despite my every effort to end my life eternally, he spared me and slowly weaned me from my self-destruction. It has been many years since I’ve woken in that state. Looking back, it seems like a different person living someone else’s life, and in many ways that is true.


I really thought that I was past the place where I had to worry about death by beer. I thought this right up until a few weeks ago.


Right before the holidays I was driving from Frederick to York to pick up my girls for the weekend. I didn’t have any plans for weekend debauchery. No keg stands with kiddos in my future. I was anticipating a couple of days of ice skating, Uno and charades, when out of nowhere my old nemesis and lover struck.


In this case the front end of my car.


As I was hurtling down the highway at sixty miles per hour, a case of beer flew out of the back of a Subaru station wagon and collided with my brand-new VW Jetta. I had no time to comprehend what was happening, much less swerve. I felt and heard a loud thud, felt the car lurch and skid, and began braking.


By the grace of God I was able to successfully navigate to the shoulder of the highway without injury, at least to my person. The car was a mess (to the tune of $6500 worth of damage), but I was alive, breathing and thanking God.


And now that my heart rate has returned to a less frenetic rate, I find the irony really funny. God spared me yet again from death by beer. I’m not sure that I have any profound conclusion to draw from this episode except that it didn’t make me shudder. There were no icy fingers stroking slowly down my spine. There was no moment of terror.

You see, had that case of beer been the instrument that carried me from this world, I would not have been headed into some dark oblivion. Rather, I would have been carried home to a reunion with both my earthly and heavenly fathers.


And that would have been a heck of a funny story to share with them both.

Confessions @ 4 am

It is now 4 am and I can’t sleep. I have tried everything I could think of to try to wipe the image from my mind. I created funny advertising slogans- Fox News, Fair and Balanced (oh,wait, that might not be mine). I played several rounds of mental golf (if only I played this well during the daylight, someone else might actually witness my greatness). I prayed.


But still I am haunted by that image- the shallow breathing, the broken, bloody teeth, the pool of blood congealing around his head.


Perhaps I should back up. Early this afternoon, Liz and I were driving through the city. I was turning a corner about a half-mile from my apartment. As I scanned the intersection I saw a body, lying in the middle of the street, not moving. It was utterly shocking and surreal.


Confession #1– My first impulse was to pretend I didn’t see anything and to keep driving. That section of the city isn’t the safest for a white person to wander around in, and a small crowd had assembled on the sidewalk. Surely, I reasoned, they had already called 911 and someone would help that man, lying limply in a pool of blood.


But I knew that wasn’t right and so I stopped. Liz and I ran down the street, asking those we passed if anyone had called for help. One lady was on the phone, but she was talking to a friend. Everyone else seemed to be content to gawk. No one even went near the man. We ran out into the street and while Liz called the paramedics, I went and stood by the man, making sure that no one ran over him.


Confession #2– I had no idea what to do. I looked down at this man, lying their bleeding beside me, and had no inkling of how to help him. I could see that he was breathing, albeit very shallowly. I could see that he had a head wound, but didn’t have any idea what to do about it. I asked him if he could hear me. I told him help was coming. I tried to find out if anyone knew what had happened to him. But I was totally incapable of helping this man. I knew that I shouldn’t move him. I was afraid to touch him. I stood there, impotently staring at a person who very well might have been dying before my eyes.


Confession #3– The primary emotion that I felt as I stood there wasn’t compassion, it was anger. I did feel compassion for the man, but the anger was much more acute. As I asked those standing on the sidewalk if they had seen what happened, a picture emerged. This man had been jumped by a group of thugs in the middle of a busy street, in the middle of the afternoon, and not one person had attempted to interfere or could identify the assailants, or had even bothered to call the authorities. And as they stood there, staring dumbly at this wounded man, no one really seemed to care. It was infuriating.


Confession #4– I am a hypocrite. That sense of judgment that I felt, looking at those standing around, might have made me feel superior, but if I’m honest about it, I can’t say that I would have done anything differently, had I been in their shoes. Would I have jumped in and risked my neck to save someone I didn’t know against potentially armed street toughs? I’m not totally sure that I would. And if I saw scenes like that every day, like many who live in the poorer sections of this violent city do, would I become jaded and afraid to talk about the things that I witnessed? I can’t honestly say (see confession #1).


Confession #5– I froze in the moment. Since I was a little kid, I have always had these fantasies of heroism- stopping a robbery in progress, rescuing a baby from a wild dingo, single-handedly eradicating hip hop, that kind of thing. However, when actually confronted with a situation where I could have helped, I froze. Because I had a skill that I could have used, but I didn’t. I have the ear of the God of the universe, and I never gave him a shout. I could have knelt beside that man and prayed aloud, asking for God’s protection and healing, but I didn’t. I might have missed an opportunity to speak grace into that man’s world. I failed.


God, please be with that injured man. I’m sorry I didn’t ask sooner.