It wasn’t my proudest moment. I was young and dumb – the young part being a long time ago – and eating pizza at a restaurant with my friend Jack after a night of partying. We were drunk and high and unfortunately sitting next to a table of farmers who kept talking about plowing the back forty and other activities that sounded hilarious to us.
We quickly profiled them as dumb farmers – being the sophisticated, intellectual giants we were at the time – and giggled at everything about them: their conversation, their overalls and manure-stained boots, the requisite flannel shirts and their grubby agricultural caps. Thinking about where the food we ate came from was beyond us.
Whereas I was always a happy, peaceful drunk, who wished he’d grown of age a decade earlier to experience the summer of love (that would be the 1960s for those too young to know), Jack was a bit of a troublemaker. We both had long hair and colorfully patched blue jeans, looking as if we’d just come from the Woodstock Festival in a VW Bus. I can only imagine what the farmers thought of us. They probably profiled us much more accurately (as clueless teenagers) than we did them, if they gave us any thought at all.
Upon finishing our pizza, we got up to leave, and I have no idea why, but Jack turned to the farmers and said, “If your girlfriends behind the counter were any fatter they’d overflow.” The women making the pizzas were rather large, but the two farmers were sitting with their rugged wives, who looked as if they’d spent the afternoon wrestling steer, so his comments, beyond being disgusting, were completely absurd, which is probably why I laughed all the way out the door.
It wasn’t until I got to the driver’s side of my car before I realized that the farmers had followed us out, looking for a fight. Jack said something I couldn’t hear, and the
larger of the two men responded. He yelled, “Well I’m going to start pounding holes in this car.”
As peaceful as I always was, I also had a history, if I wasn’t too wasted, of refusing to back down (of standing my ground). The concept of walking away hadn’t yet settled into my undeveloped teenage brain, even though the man appeared to possess the ability to easily and nonchalantly remove my head from my body if he chose to bother with such a simple chore.
But I stood tall; I looked at him sternly and yelled back, “Then you’ll be answering to me” (think Chihuahua barking at a German Shepard).
He looked at me the way I imagine an abusive evil stepfather looks at the boy he’s about to pummel into oblivion – completely devoid of fear because of his superior size and immense strength – and said with the force of a Mack Truck, “Well how big are you?” He started around the car in my direction as he spoke (think grizzly bear on two legs ready to maul a child).
If I’d had any sense at all, I would have run for my life. Instead I stepped towards him, overly confident for some inexplicable reason other than the alcohol still fuming in my veins, and said with equal aplomb, “I’m just as big as you.” Although I was no small fry, compared to the farmer my comment was as absurd as Jack’s.
Amazingly, it stopped him dead in his tracks. My confidence must have caught him by surprise. By then the pizza proprietor had emerged from his shop and intervened before anything else was said, asking the farmers he knew by name to come back into his shop, and telling us to get the hell out of there and never come back.
Who knows what might have happened if the pizza man hadn’t stepped in. Maybe the farmer would have overcome his initial surprise and continued his charge.
At that age I had little understanding of how to control my emotions or avoid such conflicts, though I was usually able to do so. Most of the time I wanted nothing to do with fighting. For young men, avoiding fights can require constant vigilance. You never know when someone is going to challenge you, or bully you, or make a false assumption or accusation, and backing down in front of your peers isn’t acceptable.
Fortunately neither I nor the farmer, as far as I know, were packing heat. If he’d come after me, and I’d foolishly continued to stand my ground, well, think Ndamukong Suh dismantling a quarterback. But even if that had happened, I can’t imagine pulling out a gun. Back then, it just wasn’t done, or seldom thought of as a possible action. The Wild West was well behind us. Most likely, I would have taken a severe beating – thanks to my friend Jack – who deserved it more.
Even the craziest, and angriest man I knew at the time, never brandished a gun. He fought constantly and usually won. I witnessed him get his comeuppance once and he left sullen, vowing to come back with a gun to finish the fight. But he never did. Even he thought better of the consequences of killing someone. Fortunately he wasn’t already packing as who knows what might have happened in the heat of the moment. Given the attitudes of gun enthusiasts today, and their support for the recent Zimmerman verdict, I have to wonder if fear of the consequences of shooting someone is eroding. Gun enthusiasts promote responsible gun ownership – proper practice and training on handling a gun – how many of them are trained on conflict resolution, on confronting a teenager who is packing the intelligence of an action movie. I guess they don’t need it if a gun is allowed to settle the score.
At this point, it seems the gun supporters have won, and they’re slowly creating the society they deserve. Maybe they should start practicing the quick draw as the gunfights continue, especially as more armed Zimmermans patrol the streets in the throes of fantasy as wannabe cops. Maybe that’s what it will take before they realize their mistake. After facing the result of our failure to focus on the concept of balance – to prevent our society from slowly swinging toward the extreme – how many of them will start hoping the pendulum of our gun culture swings the other way?