I had my share of scraps growing up; landed a few punches; took several more. I’ve always heard that it was a rite of passage for young boys to fight. If so, I performed that rite many times in the days of my youth. And not to besmirch the ladies, my two young daughters enjoyed “rough fighting” with their old man when I was still able to get down on the living room floor and be their wrestling opponent. Funny thing was I always lost these battles. In my defense, it was two against one, and the girls were brutal.
There are heroic scraps and then there are inglorious ones. The scraps I got into as a kid were more of the inglorious kind. It is possible to learn more about the darker shades of one’s character from an inglorious scrap than from a heroic one. For a short time in high school I played basketball. Well, let me qualify that statement. I spent more time keeping the bench warm than heating up the court with my nimble basketball skills. The coach put me into a game when we were either twenty points ahead or twenty points behind with a couple of minutes left to play on the clock. Either way, there was little damage I could do on the court if given this brief moment of glory, but when offered the chance, I took my two minutes of fame and worked up a good sweat. I was aggressive on the court. I went after the ball. If I got an opportunity to take a shot, you know I took it. I did not mind fouling my opponent either, letting him know that as long as I was guarding him the game was not over until the final buzzer.
So now to my inglorious scrap during one of my rare appearances on the basketball court. We were playing an arch-rival, and during my two minutes of court time, elbows were thrown as the players went for the ball at each rebound. I’m no angel. My elbows connected with an opponent’s ribs on occasion. But on one particular rebound when I leapt off the floor to catch the ball and gripped it with both hands as it bounced off the backboard, the two opponents on either side of me began to throw as many blows against my defenseless body in an attempt to steal the ball before our feet returned to the hardwood floor; all for the sake of winning the game, of course.
No whistle was blown. It was flagrant fouling, but the referees must have been ready to get home and wanted to be done with this game. When my feet hit the ground I spun around and looked squarely into my opponent’s face, the worst offender of “thrown” elbows; it was two against one, remember. “You want the ball so bad, you can have it,” I said just before I threw the ball right into his face. (For the sake of the more refined reader I have left out the profane words I uttered. Other readers can just sprinkle them into the sentence structure wherever they wish.) My action and language got the ref’s attention, and with a piercing blast from his whistle and a great windup of his arm, he banished me from the game.
Yeah, yeah, I know. How could I? What was I thinking? What kind of sportsman-like conduct was this? You shamed the team…the school. Worst example of Christian behavior. (The line for the self-righteous forms in the rear.) I heard all that and more. I smashed my opponent’s nose and knocked him to the floor. In my two-minutes on the court I had succeeded in bloodying a guy’s nose and getting myself thrown out of the game. And I really didn’t have to work that hard. It came naturally. I guess I was possessed. If we had been Catholic or Pentecostal I would have gone in for an exorcism, instead the coach sent me to the locker room after a good public scolding. I don’t remember if we won or not. After the game the locker room was unusually quiet. I walked out of the gym alone, suddenly the leper my teammates shunned. How could I blame them? This was not my “Rudy” moment.
When our girls were little and I would put them to bed at night they would often ask me, “Daddy, tell us a story about when you were bad.” They framed their request as if it was a time way in the past, ancient history; something buried in the psyche of all mankind and told as myth or morality tales to teach wayward children about the consequences of bad behavior. My basketball story certainly fit that bill and would prepare their little minds for a proper nightmare as their innocent heads lay on the pillows before drifting off to sleep. As our girls got older they soon realized that Daddy had never stopped being bad. While I am a follower of Christ, I am a very messy one, what I would call a one-man, spiritual oil-spill, which makes it easier for God to track me and requires a constant flow of grace and mercy into my soul.
I picked an inglorious fight on the basketball court, and I became known for something. There were many who thought I was on the road to perdition, and I gave them multiple examples to bolster that belief. The reputation for being “bad” is a hard one to shake. A few months before Kay and I got married some church elder’s wife pulled Kay aside and warned her not to marry me. It would never work, the grumpy elder’s wife said. Yet thirty-nine years later, here we are. Kay shows no signs of leaving. Now she has wanted to kill me numerous times, but the thought of leaving me has not crossed her mind.
In today’s modern times it is much easier for everyone to be known for something. As Andy Warhol said, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes.” Warhol was prophesying the coming of the “Selfie,” but the “Selfie” does not create bedtime stories for your children. I think scraping and losing and failure in general creates more interesting stories and shapes character. The culture is obsessed with “winners” and “losers.” That is a simple characterization for the simple minded and does not offer proof-positive of a person’s full dimensional character. But if that is how we choose to label a person, then I am happy to be counted among the losers.
I am currently engaged in telling the story of what I consider to be a heroic scrap; one I am proud to play a role in the telling. “Inherit the Wind,” a Nashville Repertory Theatre production running through April 21 at TPAC in downtown Nashville, is the play based on two titans in American history arguing the merits of faith and science and the freedom to think objectively on both topics. While there was a win/loss outcome in regard to the law, I consider this historic event a win for all concerned. The scrap, while local to Tennessee, had a macro-cosmic effect on the country that still reverberates. Both Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan were champions of the underdog. The two men spent their lives defending the under-represented in America, and though they had different perspectives that motivated their actions throughout their lives, the driving force behind those actions was born from heroic hearts. If you are going to pick a fight, examine your heart to make sure that what motivates you is a heroic impulse, if not, it is probably just another contribution to the river of rancor flowing through our land.
Cover Art: Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes Trial in 1925.