Of Boys and Men
In a remote spot of pasture, wild junipers tossed nervously in the breeze. A sun-spangled creek burbled and gurgled along its winding course, while a flock of red-winged blackbirds chattered like coliseum spectators gawking at gladiators. A right of passage into manhood would soon occur here, and all of nature announced it.
The brawny ringleader named Paul worn torn overalls but no shirt or shoes, and commanded respect by virtue of his arrogance. As Paul’s bare toes oozed mud along the creek bank not far from the junipers, he spoke with authority.
“Do it,” he barked while unbuckling one shoulder strap and then reattaching it. “Or be whipped with these metal buckles instead.” Paul glared into John’s face, nose-to-nose. “In which case you’ll also be outcast. Nobody. A punk.” He made a threatening fist and flexed his upper arms. “It’s your choice.”
A stump – a crude altar of sacrifice to renegade manhood – supported a dirty paper plate. “Just eat ‘em,” Paul insisted.
Three other bare-chested boys stood hunched as if in a football huddle with their hands on their knees, peering first at the soon-to-be-sacrificed creatures on the plate and then at the petite, ashen little boy perhaps five years their junior. John, barely seven years old, sat cross-legged in the middle of the huddle wearing fashionable jeans and a sports jersey.
“No? Then the strap-and-buckle!” Paul yelled. “Grab him, guys! Let’s whop him!”
Terror flashed through Johns’ brown eyes like miniature bolts of lightning in a night sky. “No …. NO! I’ll do it! I’LL DO IT!”
“Alright, then! Stuff both of those juicy night crawlers go in your mouth at once! Chew and swallow – no gagging, or you’ll pay.”
The whooping boys, led by Paul, encircled John while chanting and hopping like Indians in a war dance. John’s mind raced as adrenaline coursed through his veins. He had no choice but to eat those worms! And yet not long ago, before his parents decided to move beyond the city limits, he rode his bicycle with neighborhood friends in a safe, friendly cul-de-sac. “You’ll love the country – so much to explore and do,” his father had promised. Now this!
Paul glowered and placed his hand on the metal buckle of his shoulder strap as if in warning. John grimaced, trapped and helpless. He assumed if he attempted escape they might beat him to a bloody pulp, so he held the flimsy paper plate in his left hand and scraped the finger-thick, dirt-covered worms into a loose, writhing pile with his right. This was the first time John had ever touched worms. And he was supposed to EAT them?
“NOW!” shouted Paul. “NOW, now, now, now …” chanted the boys in unison.
John visually studied the horror before him, and his stomach churned. The worms twisted like miniature cobras dancing to the chant: “NOW, now, now, now, NOW, now, now, now … !”
Slowly and deliberately, John scooped up the victims, cocked his head backwards, and slit open his dry lips. The worms dangled like fat brown spaghetti dripping from the uplifted hand of a demented statue of liberty-turned-captive. He obediently dropped his hand closer, closer, closer to his mouth in slow motion, intentionally delaying the inevitable.
One squiggly worm finally touched John’s bottom lip. He involuntarily pursed his mouth, drew his tongue as far back in his throat as possible, and prepared for the abhorrent inevitability of gross invasion.
Without warning, rash movement erupted as one of Paul’s lackeys lunged forward into the center of the ring. John defensively jumped, dropped the worms, and flung his hands before his face in protection. But this was not an attack; it was mutiny!
“C’mon, John! Run!” The traitor clutched John’s arm and together they took off for the creek. John scampered like a dazed domesticated rabbit released from its cage and plunged headlong into the current. He didn’t realize, as did his rescuer, that the arrogant Paul had an Achilles’ heel: he couldn’t swim, and was terrified of water.
Meanwhile Paul flailed his arms and screamed obscenities. The two escapees had been swept downstream about a hundred feet, when Paul shouted to his accomplices. “What are you doing, standing here like worthless bums? After them! We’ll make them pay for this!”
The other two boys dashed into the water, but as fellow escapees rather than enforcers. Paul had gone too far. It was time to stand up to him and be men.
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