Yup. It really happened. I took on a gang of thugs with my index finger, and now I will show you how.
I can only imagine the year must have been 1982 or 83. I think I was either 12 or 13, right at the age where my feet were bigger than the rest of me. I was discovering girls and social life as a teenager. And I was developing quite the fashion sense! It was the year parachute pants made their surge. I bet I was wearing my Kangaroo shoes too, and definitely I had the hat. I think today we might call it a Panama Jack hat, but in those days, we called it a “low rider”. I was soooooo naïve, but I thought was hot stuff.
I was hanging out with my older cousin Barry, whom I idolized, which for me was a rare treat; in fact after reaching adolescence, it was the only time I recall doing that. Barry and I met at my grandparents house for a visit that summer in Amarillo, Texas. Barry had a hotrod 1969 Chevell! Barry could drive! And he took me to the Wonderland Amusement Park for a couple of hours mid afternoon.
It was a new experience for me, though I would not have let on. I was suave, and so was Barry. For years, our grandparents had taken us to that park as children, but now we were old enough to go on our own, and I walked right past the kiddie rides as if they did not exist, as if there never had been a time when they were the feature that made me fall in love with the place to begin with! No. Barry and I had business to attend to at the win-a-prize booth – particularly throwing darts at balloons.
Did I say I was soooooo innocent?
I did, huh? Yeah. That is key to my story actually. Let me fill in a bit of background.
Nearly half of my growing up years took place in Texas. And Texas is a FRIENDLY place. I have been a lot of places actually. I was born in California, lived in Arizona, Colorado, and Texas mostly, and visited many other regions of the country, and none are as friendly as Texas. In Texas you drive down the highway and wave at strangers passing by along the open country… and they wave back! Strangers are just friends you haven’t met yet! And that certainly was the atmosphere when I was growing up.
And so when I was throwing darts at the balloons as some stranger slipped up behind me and plucked my hat off my head, placed it on his own head, and then asked how he looked when I turned around in surprise, I just thought the guy was a bit strange, but friendly. I could not read the cynicism in his gesture. I did not realize he was picking a fight. Nor did I see his really big friend backing up his flank and squaring off with Barry.
Barry saw the whole thing and read it properly. He saw that we were either outmatched or else we had our work cut out for us. But not me. I was oblivious. I had no idea. And it all happened so fast that without some prior reference to such encounters, I was not likely to add it up in my mind fast enough to respond in kind. So, Barry stood there stunned, but waiting to make a defensive move while I did all the talking.
The problem was, I did not get scared. I was clueless; and ignorance is bliss. The only scenario I could fathom was that the guy meant what he said. He apparently admired my cool hat and wanted to know if it made him look cool too.
It was at that point that I noticed the guy had some mirrored sunshades dangling on his chest from the collar of his shirt. In those days we called them glacier glasses, and I couldn’t help but think that if the strange friend I was making really wanted to know what he looked like, he could just use his shades as a mirror and examine for himself. So, I very purposefully raised my right pointed finger right into the guy’s chest and pointed at his glasses not two inches from my hand and said, “Have a look in those mirrors you got there.”
The guy jumped back startled with fear in his eyes and shouted, “Woe, man!”
I just smiled as innocently and pleasant as you please and said, “Dude, calm down.”
He responded, “I thought you were going to hit me…”
“No, you silly boy, I was pointing at your glasses. If you want to see how cool you look in my cool hat, check yourself out with those glacier glasses.”
The guy was really perplexed then. I stood there chomping my gum smiling without a care in the world, and his offense could not strike fear in me to save his life. He had all the anxiety then and very nervously took a glance at himself in his mirrors, gave the hat back and left in a hurry.
As soon as he was gone, I turned to Barry and said, “Wow. That guy was strange.”
Barry said, “Dude he was trying to pick a fight with you.”
I said, “No he was not! He was a bit strange, but he just wanted to check out my hat.”
“No, Dude, he wanted to kick your ass. He probably wanted to take your hat. And the big guy with him looked like he was gonna eat me for lunch.”
Barry and I argued over this for a couple of minutes as my denial gave way and reality began to set in. Pretty quick we moved to the cotton candy stand and then took a bit of shade under a tree to eat it. Then we noticed the two young men we had thwarted were now accompanied by several other friends. It was a gang, roaming the amusement park. We had stumbled onto their turf. And now with six or seven of them, they were making passes and mumbling threats our direction. It quickly became apparent that they were building up the nerve to have another go at us. It also quickly became apparent that my fearlessness had run out.
I have pondered that moment in my life thousands of times since. I have analyzed it every way under the sun. For years I was ashamed of the tale because I was sooooo naïve in the engagement. But I could not shake the fact that my naiveté facilitated my fearlessness which so baffled a whole gang of thugs that they feared me! In my middle adult years, I came to embrace the coming-of-age moment and to own it. I only wish I could be that fearless in every encounter. I won a vicious fight! And I did it with grace.
As I look back on it, I find it to be one of the moments that opens prophetic imagination for me. And I think it dramatizes an important ideal, that innocence and fearlessness are POWER, and limited imaginations can’t cope when they come in conflict with it.