Tuesday, April 19, 2011

An Obit Awakening

J.B. is dead. I accidently came across his obituary while looking for something else in my hometown newspaper. Memories flooded in.

J.B. was being an arrogant jerk the first time I met him. Fifty years later, when I saw him for the last time, he was still being an arrogant jerk. Everyone learns as they age; some learn humility, wisdom, empathy, others refine the obnoxious behaviors of their youth, becoming champions at the evil that they do.

I don’t want to be too hard on J.B. I may have caught him at the two or three worst moments in his life. I remember little about him other than a couple of personal incidents during the time we were in high school together. Oh, and that his breath reeked of garlic. Even his sweat smelled of garlic.

J.B. was one of several sons of an Italian family who owned and operated an “establishment” in our town. It was thought – though, looking back, I wonder – that the ice cream they sold was produced at their facility. Regardless, I have a clear memory of my brother buying their “bulk scooped” ice cream as a treat for our family, and a faint memory of enjoying a fountain soda there on one occasion. What else they served, if anything, I don’t recall. I just know that after meeting J.B. I never visited their “establishment” again.

I first met J.B. in the boys locker room after a session of Phy Ed. I was a freshman, trembling through the school year, expecting any moment to be accosted by an upperclassman who would demand some humiliating thing of me. Hazing was almost an approved sport at that time. (I have no memory of any disciplinary action being taken by the school or any teacher against a hazer; certainly not in the incident I’ll recite below.) Hazing went under the name of “Freshman Initiation.” Freshman Initiation reached fever pitch during homecoming week and any unlucky boy (I never heard of girls being hazed) whom an upperclassman wished to humiliate had no choice but to do as he was commanded, even to the point of surrendering his trousers, which he might have to retrieve from a tree. More commonly he would be given a “shampoo” in a toilet bowl, or forced to spend the day with one shoe on and one off, one pant leg normal and the other rolled up. The “fever” receded somewhat after Homecoming week but one was not immune to humiliation until one passed from the freshman class. Of course, by then, ninety percent of those who had been hazed, or lived under the fear of it for a year, were eager to perpetuate the “tradition” when they could be the hazers. Thus are traditions passed from generation to generation.

But back to the locker room incident. The gym class was over and we were toweling down after our showers, dressing for the rest of the school day. J.B. noticed, to his great, derisive delight, that I had tucked the tail of my undershirt into my jockey style shorts rather than leaving it outside as he had done. His booming, demeaning laughter brought the attention of everyone in the locker room to my “stupid” faux pas. He then proceeded to challenge my manhood (in fact, I had not lived long enough to have anything but adolescence-hood) ending with a challenge to a fight after school. I have no memory of how I evaded a fight with J.B. that day but I know that, however I managed to escape, there was no assistance from either of the “coaches” (Phy Ed teachers) present. They had neither eyes nor ears. Three human beings lost my respect that day.

But sometimes – not often, actually – well, seldom, to be exact – but, sometimes the fates bring sweet revenge to gladden the hearts of the oppressed. At the opposite end of life’s hierarchy – J.B., you must understand, held forth as the king of forest – was Richard, a poor, hapless boy whom no one picked on. He came from such a dysfunctional family – once going to his beleaguered mother’s aid when she was being beaten by her husband, attacking his father with a cast iron skillet and biting him – that everyone gave him a pass when he came to school. His bulb shined much duller than most.

So it was that, in a Phy Ed class in which we were playing volleyball, J.B. was teamed with Richard, the hapless young man. As it turned out J.B. was covering the net and Richard was positioned in one of the middle posts between the front and back row. The ball came over the net headed for Richard’s spot. J.B., undoubtedly knowing that Richard would muff the return, lunged into his space intending to return the ball over his head. But just as his hand reached ball to flip it artfully across the net (J.B. was nothing if not artful) Richard attempted to send the ball back with a mighty uppercut motion, fist clenched. Richard’s uppercut missed the ball but caught J.B. squarely in the face. As J.B. made his way to the locker room a number of us congratulated Richard on the precise timing of his return.

Fifty years passed before I had anything more to do with J.B. I knew that he had married the prettiest girl in my graduating class, a sort of Helen of CCHS. They had two sons, divorced, re-married, and were in attendance at my (and Helen’s) fiftieth class reunion. A time was given during the program for members of the class of ’54 to rise and give a brief description of where their life had led them. J.B. chose to speak for Helen. He was not a member of our class but who besides he could convey the great privilege she had enjoyed, being married to him all those years – minus a few? He proceeded to regale us with the great success he had achieved and the prestigious universities from which his sons had graduated, one becoming a lawyer, the other a doctor. When he finished no others rose to speak. J.B. undoubtedly interpreted the embarrassed hush as confirmation that his performance had made all other comments superfluous.

And now he is dead. I didn’t expect the feelings that discovery brought me. I was surprised by the sorrow I felt. It made me think that all jerks do eventually die. And then they are supposed to get what’s coming to them. I’ve been a jerk a time or two myself. I wonder if those whom my words and deeds have wounded are waiting to read my obituary and know that, at last, I’m getting what’s coming to me. I’ve been hoping for something better . . . for some forgiveness . . . and some understanding.

R.I.P., J.B.

I hope the mortician did your underwear just the way you like it.

1 comment:

  1. I guess we are all jerks at some time. I hate to recall my moments. I like to think I am a different person now. In fact, I know I am. I hope I can be forgiven by all that I may have hurt.


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