Joe McCurdy, with a story of bullies, courage and fatherhood.
Don’t be chicken!
‘Thank you big brother for putting that goddamn phrase into my head”, I growled to myself as I watched my 6-year-old son Matthew walk carefully across the grass towards the play equipment, his eyes locked on his nemesis on the other side of the yard. He quickened his pace as the bully raised his head, noticed my son and started in his direction. Matty made it to the play set before the bully was close enough and climbed up the ladder to the raised platform, safely out of reach. The bully can’t climb, and usually loses interest if his quarry gains altitude before he can get close enough.
I’d watched this scenario play out several times and, having been through “Men’s initiation” rituals, “guts” work, leadership training, etc., I decided that it was high time for me to help my son learn how to call a bully’s bluff. Next time I saw him head out to the yard, I went with him and started trying to set up a scenario where I could help him face and eventually dominate his nemesis. The bully was a willing, if unwitting, participant in this process, demonstrating a disturbing eagerness to play out every cliché about bullies: He was loud and arrogant, hollow and brittle. He was terrified of me but loved to terrorize my son. I loathed his meanness but secretly envied his strut.
“Just walk right through him like he’s not even there!” I said in Matthew’s ear. “He’ll get out of the way. Right now he thinks you’re afraid of him so he knows you’ll try to walk around him. That’s why he comes after you and threatens you – he likes to think you’re afraid of him!”
“But Dad,” wailed my son “I AM AFRAID OF HIM!”
“Yes son, but you need to understand something about bullies: He’s secretly afraid of you. He knows you’re bigger than him, so he’s trying to keep you scared because he is.”
“I don’t think he’s scared of me at all!”
I had mercy on my son after 15 minutes like this. He was truly afraid he would get hurt, it was evening and he was hungry and tired, and he promised that he would face his fears “tomorrow”.
The next morning was just beautiful. 70 degrees, just a hint of dew on the grass, dragonflies out in force eating the mosquitoes and the promise of a perfect summer day. My wife and I were up early and sitting on the deck with our tea. Matty came outside and headed across the grass to his play set, climbing up to the raised platform, going through his own early morning ritual. Enough time passed for me to get absorbed in conversation with my wife when I heard my son call “Hey Dad! Uhhh, a little help?” I looked up and saw the bully circling his play set like a shark. Matty would head towards the ladder on the back, the bully would race over there to wait for him. Head towards the slide on the front, the bully would race to the bottom of the slide. “OK,” I thought, “This has to stop.” I got up and started walking, telling my son to head down the slide and run towards me. “Just pretend he’s not there and come straight to me.”
To my surprise, my son immediately said “OK”, slid down the slide and ran straight towards me. The bully, seeing his chance, immediately gave chase and caught up with my son just before he got to me. He jumped high in the air, flinging his feet forward like some kind of ninja, and did his level best to scar my retreating son’s backside.
I saw red. That fucking cock really tried to hurt my son! I completely snapped into predator mode, grabbed my son’s baseball bat which was conveniently left on the ground nearby, and proceeded to chase the bully around the yard with every intention of knocking him out with the bat so that I could get my hands around his scrawny neck and snap it. At some point, enough of my higher brain functions kicked in to remember that I had better weapons than a bat. I ran inside, got my gun and went back outside. By this time, my wife and son were both in the yard watching things unfold. I saw them both take a step back when they saw my face and the gun in my hands. Adrenaline still pumping, I got as close as I could to that asshole as he desperately tried to escape, and put a bullet through his head.
Maybe I should pause for a moment and point out that the bully is – was – a rooster. We have 5 hens and we acquired the rooster last year so we would have baby chicks this year. The chicks have hatched and my wife and I had been discussing the rooster’s demise for several weeks. He’d been getting meaner and meaner and while he had better sense than to mess with me, he was getting more brazen in his attempts to dominate my son. But this was the first time I’d seen him actually try to really hurt one of them. A rooster’s claws are no joke – they use them to kill other roosters.
My son had managed to escaped the claws by fractions of an inch and, seeing the dead rooster laying on the ground, he started jumping up and down hooting “did you see that Mom?!” My wife started the adult equivalent of “one-two-three not it!” about who was going to pluck and clean the deceased, and I felt awful.
We live in the country and are surrounded by animals, wild and domestic. The occasional killing of an animal is a part of country life, but killing anything bigger than a rodent makes me sad. The rooster had indeed become a nuisance. He had nasty claws and woke us up at all hours with his crowing. Our poor hens have no feathers left on their backs, so vigorous was his ardor. There was no love lost between us. I had done my duty, protected my family and eliminated a threat. My son was elated; my wife seemed impressed (I got righteously laid that night) and yet I felt a heavy weight on my chest. My son wanted to go beat up the rooster’s corpse with a stick and, in spite of – or maybe because of – the previous day’s efforts to teach manliness, I felt disgust at dancing on a grave and prevented him.
I don’t identify any of my conflicted feelings as guilt or shame or even remorse. I have friends, lifelong PETA members, who will recoil in horror if they read this story. I have other friends, hunters who are prototypical Midwestern alpha males who never admit to feeling anything, let alone sadness, about killing an animal. They will feel a different kind of horror if they read this story. I’m not completely sure why I feel this way. I’ve never doubted that I could kill to protect my family, and I remain sure of that today. I’ve never put animals on the same plane as humans – we are apex predators and they are… delicious. I roll my eyes at the concept of “animal rights” and yet I support animal cruelty laws because of what cruelty to an animal says about the human being cruel. I didn’t hate the rooster, but I certainly didn’t like him. I was completely justified in ending him and received adoration from my family for doing it. So why weight and sadness?
There’s a burden I feel with being “the man.” There’s responsibility that comes with the power to kill and protect. I allowed a little of my innate wildness to come out and duel with that rooster even though all the while my evolved, civilized self knew it could only end one way. I really was ready to tear him apart with my hands but this wasn’t “sport”, it was one-sided and unfair. Perhaps I’m afraid that wildness will get off the leash. There’s such a strong paradox in being a ‘civilized man.’ At times the phrase seems like an oxymoron.
Or maybe not. I hear so often about men who abuse, who dominate, who do not respect others or themselves. I am not that guy, but I and all men certainly have some of the stuff that guy is made of. As a man, naturally larger, stronger and endowed with more testosterone than the family I’m bound to protect, sometimes I do need to show dominance. Sometimes it’s right to inspire fear in others. To be a good father, I have to be able to hold my son’s respect and attention. If he’s blindly headed into a busy street or a terrible attitude, he needs to react strongly when I bark at him. It’s OK that he’s just a little afraid of me. I’ve never hurt him, I’m loving and attentive and by all accounts a “great dad”, but he’s seen what’s in there and he both fears it and wants it.
I was raised to tuck my wildness into the deepest recesses of myself. Our culture reinforces this constantly. It’s only ok to be raw, it would seem, when we’re under the influence of mind-altering substances.
Bullshit. I want to teach my son to have healthy respect for others and himself. I’m teaching him to be kind, thoughtful, giving, polite and social, and I also want to teach him to have wildness at his disposal for urgent situations. And, my son needs to learn how to call a bully’s bluff because when mutual respect fails, violence often comes next. It’s easy to blame the bully for that, but there’s a role being played by the rest of us too.
I think I’m beginning to get why I’m sad the rooster is dead.
main photo: briannalehman / flickr, surviving hen, courtesy of author