Achilles

This is one of my older stories but one never posted on Facebook.  I hope any who read it find it enjoyable.

One summer day back in 1960 I found myself holding a large knife and shaking in my shoes, hiding in a row of bushes between 44th St. and the low, gray buildings of the shuffleboard courts at the neighborhood park near my home in San Diego.  It was a typically warm day and the bees were humming as they effortlessly but diligently sought out what little pollen there was to be had from the tiny, yellowish-white flowers of those waxy-leaved shrubs.  The shrubs stood about four feet high, which made it possible for me to hide my slight frame and the mammoth blade which I carried from sight.  At least I thought that they would do so.  As it turned out, I never got to test the theory of my invisibility, which I am perfectly convinced is one of the best things in my life that never happened to me.

In those days it was considered noble to fight.  Fights happened on schoolyards, playgrounds, city streets and front and back yards.  Sometimes they were planned:  “I’ll meet you in Terry’s back yard” or “be behind the shuffleboard courts at 11:00 on Saturday” somebody might say, and woe to the challenged party if he (it was virtually always a ‘he’ back then) failed to show.   Even if you knew that you would probably receive a beating, the black eyes and bloody noses and perhaps loose tooth here and there was infinitely preferable to the label of ‘chicken’.

Usually a few bumps on the head and a bloody nose was the most that came from these events.  Kicking was definitely discouraged and a guy who was knocked down was always allowed to get back up.  When a winner was obviously in command he would often ask “have you had enough”?  With an answer in the affirmative the fight was concluded and the combatants would go their separate ways, occasionally after a handshake, and the whole thing would become a topic of conversation for an hour or two and then forgotten.

Nobody explained those rules to Bill Samuels.

Bill was the pudgy kid who was the butt of many jokes and some harmless but nevertheless humiliating bullying.  Bill tried to be everyone’s friend because it was better than being everyone’s target, but that strategy met with minimal success.  Many of the guys in the neighborhood felt sorry for Bill but didn’t dare to take his part for fear of drawing unnecessary wrath their way as well.  Bill settled into the role of neighborhood punching bag with as much dignity as he could muster.  And then one summer Bill grew up.

Well, at least Bill grew.  The pudgy kid began to shoot skyward until he stood about six feet two or three inches and weighed about two hundred  pounds, and the pudge transformed into hard, angry muscle.  Bill was not the brightest bulb in the chandelier but he knew that several aces had just been dealt to him and he was intent on playing his hand.  His former tormentors were sought out one by one and given terrific beatings each.  No handshakes, no limitation on offensive moves, and no gentlemen’s agreement to limit the mayhem.  Bill was a revenge machine.

Those who had not participated in Bill’s early difficulties could hope to be his friend, but this was never a risk-free proposition.  Bill had become accustomed to exercising his newfound prowess and would occasionally pop somebody who was with him right out of the blue.  It was never a crippling blow however and many of us felt that a red ear or a bruise on the shoulder every now and then was a small price to pay to be considered by Bill to be a friend rather than an enemy (and Bill tended to look at the world exclusively in those categories).  It was therefore with considerable dread that I heard that Bill had challenged my brother William (not to be confused with Bill) to “meet me behind the shuffleboard courts”.

The source of this conflict is something common to adolescence and puberty around the world.  Linda Crumm, a classmate of mine, was developing a little faster than the other girls in our neighborhood and Bill was convinced that he had the inside track on her affections.  I have no idea what Linda’s views of this situation were but they were irrelevant; Bill felt that she was his girl or very soon would be.  My brother had other ideas.

William was smaller than Bill but I never knew him to show fear of anything.  My brother was a scrapper and would let no threat or insult go by without a challenge.  At least that is how I perceived my brother whom I looked up to like a conquering hero.  William had somehow noticed and perhaps even caught the attention of Linda and it became known that he was a rival who disputed the amorous claims of Bill.  It would never occur to Bill that the best course of action would be to behave himself in a manner to suggest that he would be the better catch, thereby winning the heart of the fair lady.  Bill’s barely limbic powers of logic and reason simply arrived at one plan:  Beat William to a pulp.  I heard about the arrangement and my blood went cold.  I knew that my brother could not take Bill and I knew the condition that Bill left his opponents in.  This prospect left me nearly nauseous, and I knew that I had to do something.

My plan grew out of my father’s favorite form of punishment other than knuckling my head.  When I had committed a transgression deemed unworthy of corporal punishment I was ‘put on restriction’, or what would today be called being grounded. When on restriction I was sentenced to remain within the four walls of our very small house until the indeterminate sentence was lifted.  In such times I found it to be the better part of valor to make myself invisible, thus lessening the likelihood of an escalation of the punishment to a higher and much more uncomfortable level, and remained in my room.  Mom would smuggle heavily buttered stacks of toast and glasses of milk into my prison cell while I would hunker down and ride out the storm.

This plan had it’s weak links and one was boredom.  Living as I did in San Diego it was almost always a beautiful day or evening outside, and all of my friends were playing and hanging out at the park just a quarter-block up the street.  The knowledge of this, if I allowed myself to dwell upon it, would have been painful enough to tempt me to unwise and potentially disastrous attempts to circumvent Dad’s justice.  I had to find a more or less silent way to entertain myself.  An escape from my dilemma presented itself in the form of three sets of encyclopedias that were placed for some unknown reason in my room.

One of these sets, the “Encyclopedia Americana”,  contained what must have been every fact known to mortal man since the beginning of time.  Each volume of this massive set contained big words about even bigger topics that I could no more follow than fly out of my window and speak with the catbirds that perched on our TV antenna and tormented our two cats.  I always felt smarter after reading an article in that encyclopedia even though I couldn’t have told you what I had just read if my life depended on it.

On another bookshelf rested another encyclopedia set, this one the “Britannica Junior”.  This encyclopedia was much more my style and in it I was far more likely to read about ‘kites’ than ‘kinesis’, but in many ways this set of books was just too elementary, even with me being only twelve at the time.  Both of the encyclopedias shared an additional shortcoming; they were just as old as I was.  Even in those times a dozen years meant a great deal of change, and while some articles were still relevant the writing style and many of the articles were not.  The solution to my problem was to be found in the third set of books, an up-to-date “World Book” encyclopedia.

The World Book was a dream come true.  All of the articles reflected the state of knowledge (or the presumption of knowledge) that existed at that time.  The photos were in color, the charts and graphs explained trends and the range of topics from aardvarks to Zeeland gave me hours of random reading and learning that any teacher could scarcely hope to obtain from a student.  I would kneel before the altar of my books, close my eyes and select a volume to read, and after a few days of my silence and seclusion my father would remember that I existed and have no doubt that I had suffered greatly, and allow me the grace to be released from my captivity.  I would leave my room and my books with the certain knowledge that, before very much time went by, I would be reunited with my fast friends in the now-bearable condition of ‘restriction’.

It was while in a state of restriction that I read about the achilles tendon.  Achilles, as every kid who spent much time on restriction and read Edith Hamilton’s “Greek Mythology” and the World Book encyclopedia knows, was the son of the nymph Thetis and of Peleus, the king of a legendary warrior people called the Myrmidons.  Thetis attempted to make her son immortal, as any mother would, by holding him by his heel and dipping him in the river Styx.  The plan worked fairly well and Achilles grew up to Kick massive amounts of tail until, by accident or design, an arrow struck him in his one vulnerable spot; his heel by which his mother held him as the rest was submerged.

Renaissance anatomists were aware of Greek myths just as I was and so, as they dissected bodies and learned how the human machine was put together they inevitably named that tendon which connected the plantaris, gastrocnemius and soleus muscles to the calcaneus bone the ‘achilles tendon’.  One other fact which was exposed to me was that the achilles tendon, if cut, would render it impossible for a person to walk.  Or fight.

So there I was, hiding amongst the waxy leaves, tiny flowers and humming bees, armed with my restriction-engendered knowledge of the achilles tendon and a very large, heavy knife honed to the best edge that I could manage waiting for the crowds to gather and the combat to begin.  My plan was that as the combatants circled each other I would dash out and slice through the achilles tendon of Bill Samuels and save the life of my brother.  I do not mean to imply that I was cool and calculating about the whole thing.  I was trembling, breathing shallow, irregular breaths and gripping the knife with sweaty hands like a drowning man clutching at a plank of wood.  If called upon to actually implement my plan I would have very likely failed and cut myself to ribbons in the bargain, but there I was anyway; me, myself, I, and that big heavy knife.

And nobody else.  Eleven o’clock came and went and no William, no Bill, and no crowds of onlookers to urge them on.  I had no idea what had happened, but by eleven thirty it was obvious that the plan had changed, so I sheathed my knife and carried it back to the place that it usually occupied in our garage.

Much later I learned that Charlie, the only guy in the neighborhood who was tougher than Bill Samuels owed my brother a favor and convinced Bill that he had nothing to lose and everything to gain by calling off the fight.  Nobody believed that Bill was afraid of William or that he could not take him, and Charlie would dish out a beating to Bill that would make what Bill dished out to William look like a picnic by comparison if the fight went on as planned.  Bill, proving that some level of reason could penetrate his thick skull, considered his options and chose discretion.  The day ended with my brother alive, Bill Samuels able to walk, me not in jail or dead, and Linda Crumm sick of the lot of us.  At least somebody exercised some common sense in this affair.

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