A Hard Lesson Learned

There is that saying that if it doesn’t kill you it only makes you stronger.   That’s what people say, anyway, right?  And if you learned from a bad experience, at least you got something out of it…yeah, that’s cool, but when you’re in the midst of that hard lesson and you DO nearly get killed, I’m not sure that’s in the forefront of your mind.

So, as experiences go, getting punched in the face is one of the more unpleasant ones and one of those times where you’re not thinking, “ah, can’t wait to find out what I learn from this.”

A punch in any general proximity to your head is fairly crappy and multiple hits takes it beyond horrible.   Your head’s hard and for a reason.  The brain is an important organ and needs a lot of protection.   Thus the up-armored nature of the skull bone.  I guess, too, that’s why it hurts a lot when you’re hit there.  A not so subtle message that you’re doing something wrong on the quest for survival.  Pain tends to be our body’s way of teaching us lessons, but it is up to the individual whether they learn from those lessons or not.

In my early twenties, I was feeling the invincibility that was left over from my late teens.   It had started to wear off as I contemplated being the responsible adult and making a living for myself.  But there was still that glow of power, the feeling of mastery of the world and the testosterone induced need to show people what’s under the hood.   It seems the norm in sports, business or really any opportunity that calls for demonstration of “maleness”;   Out of college, on one’s own and ready to take on the world.

And so it was that I found myself in one of those darker corners of human experience.  During a transitional period when I was finishing up a graduate level statistics course (yes, it was the boring hell the subject indicates it would be) at Villanova University for my degree in math and actually deciding what I was going to do with the newly minted sheep skin I would receive, I had a job renovating two floors of a Hilton Hotel in King of Prussia, PA.   I was part of a crew of guys who would gut a room, strip it to the bare walls and then remake it in a more appropriate late eighties decor.   On the other side, we’d put in new carpets, lamps, beds, and fixtures.  My job was the bathrooms (probably fitting for one who’d spent the last six months and would spend the following three being a complete tool.)

One particular week, a new team had come in to paint the walls and texture the ceilings and with them came the drugs.  One of the other summer employees, we’ll call him Harold, took to these folks.  He was fat and pasty and had coke bottle glasses.   A big guy with self-esteem issues he began hanging out with these guys regularly during the day.

I didn’t much take to drugs and laziness (I wasn’t that much of a tool) and got a little frustrated when I realized these guys weren’t pulling their weight.  Harold was happy not to do the labor, and would disappear into one of the rooms for stretches at a time.  The work was hard enough without all this going on.  The problem was, I was a cocky bastard.   So I wasn’t all that nice to Harold, looking upon him and treating him with disdain as if I had nothing more to learn.

One day, when finishing up putting fixture handles on sinks and tubs and ensuring the water feeds were turned on in a recently finished bathroom, Harold appeared in the doorway.   I say he appeared, but it was more like he filled it.  He asked me point blank,

“Do you have a problem with me?”  He had obviously caught my negative vibe.

“No,” I said, “I just don’t like the drugs on the work site.”

“You don’t know how badly I want to hit you right now,” was his reply.  I could see he was roiling just beneath the surface but unfortunately my flight or fight response had gone to lunch early and I didn’t really consider what that meant.

This was the point at which the road forked.   Here he was extremely agitated and I was certain that he had already partaken in some kind of illicit activity earlier in the morning.  Looking back, I could honestly say he seemed crazed in a controlled sort of way.  And there we stood with two paths from which to choose.

I could have taken the path of reason.  The proverbial high road.   I could have put up my hands , palms out, in a gesture of acquiescence, telling him I was sorry, I didn’t mean to offend him and that regardless of what I felt, what he did was none of my business.  But I didn’t do that.

I was twenty-three, arrogant and apparently not as bright as I’d believed.  Looking back now, I realize how very non-bright I was and it brings shudders.

So I said, “but you won’t.  Because you’ll be fired.”  And I didn’t say it matter-of-factly, no.   I said it with a slight air of arrogance, repeating myself a few times in response to one or two other threats he made.  An air like I knew what was going on and how things worked.  The air of a fool.

The rest is a little fuzzy because at that point a freight train named Haymaker slammed into the left side of my mouth.  It must have started in Detroit because the pain was exquisite and exploded through my  head with incredible volume.  I involuntarily spun away to my right but the sheer locomotive-like speed behind that meaty fist may also have had something to do with it.

It must have been only a split second but suddenly my left side was against the wall, I was bent over the commode and this psycho with the coke bottle glasses was hammering the back of my head.  Not the nice round part that’s hard and protective, but the soft muscles at the base of my skull.  It was all I could do to stay conscious or even say something.   But I was able to get out four words and I believe those four words are what might have saved my life.

“I’m down, I’m down!” I said, and the rain stopped.

He must have landed four of five solid hits.   The fact that I was still conscious, albeit barely, was a bit amazing and I am not exactly sure how that could have been, based on the lightning bolts and thunderous throbbing currently going on inside my head.  But I think those few words stopped him.  It took the life out of his fury as quickly as it has come, letting him know he’d “won” and he didn’t need to  prove anything more.

At that point, focus was limited to the immediate.  I no longer knew he was there but simply checked my face in the mirror, verified my teeth were all there (they were but my gums on the left side were slightly cut), and walked out of the room.

Looking back, I am really not sure how I found the others on the crew nor that the room I walked in to happen to have everyone in it.  But I simply turned the corner, poked my thumb over my shoulder and said “he just attacked me.”

At this point, I was barely hanging on.  I had just been severely beaten and that’s never really sat well with me.  It seemed (and still seems) so surreal since I had neither put myself into nor been a part of that kind of situation before or since (except when the cops drew down on me and a few others in Ocean City, NJ but that was a misunderstanding and mistaken identity…for another time).

Being that close to unconsciousness and still trying to function cognitively takes monumental effort.  As I stood there trying to relate what happened to the foreman and  the others standing around a little stunned, it became too much and the blackness began to close over me like a wet, sweet cloud full of corruption bubbling up from deep in my head.  That was the most terrifying because I was convinced that if I checked out, I might not come back.

I nearly fell backward, but, luckily a folded carpet roll was wedged in the doorway of the bathroom and I landed on that.  Putting my head down, the blood returned and my head cleared a little.   They asked if I was all right and I assured them I was not.  I never went to the hospital but knowing what I know now, I realize I probably had a grade three concussion and at the moment was doing pretty poorly so just sat there dazed and confused with my head hanging to my knees. We were told to head down to the maintenance shop and wait there and another co-worker was told to help me because of the challenge I was having standing up.

Then I did something that was strange under the circumstances but didn’t really surprise me.  I stood up slowly, got my bearings and stepped over to Harold.  I put out my hand and we shook.   It was a simple gesture, but I meant it.   I meant that there were no hard feelings, I was embarrassed by my own behavior, disappointed in his and somewhere in my scrambled brain I knew I’d pushed too far and we’d both been wrong.  I needed to at least try to be the adult I thought I was.  I didn’t care if the others in the room didn’t understand, nor if they thought it was a crazy thing to do.  I believed  it was the right thing to do.

The next day, Harold came in with an enormous bandage on his hand.   Aside from a monster headache that lasted about a week (yeah, a pretty bad concussion and I, to this day, kick myself for being and an idiot and not having a physician check me out) I was pretty well unscathed.   Apparently, you can get sepsis from hitting someone in the mouth if you cut your hand.  The human mouth is full of bad organisms that, once in the blood, can really ruin your day.   So I feel like he made out worse than I and have to admit that a small part of me hoped that he would at least get an infection that hung on a little longer than he liked.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t totally cured of my ignorance and hubris.

I probably could have tried to press charges but I didn’t and there were no witnesses, anyway.  I had egged the guy on so I clearly had to bear at part of the blame for what happened.   Unfortunately, the manager of the engineering department was such a milquetoast and so afraid of upper management (someone else with self-esteem issues) he couldn’t figure out what to do, nor act on it appropriately if he could, so he decided to take the easy way out and get rid of the problem by asking us both to resign.

I had no problem with that, really.   Summer was winding down, my class was ending, I wasn’t really digging on working there anymore and a friend of mine worked at a Steak & Ale down the street which seemed more fun anyway.   So I wrote my resignation letter, went upstairs to say goodbye to the guys I’d gotten to know.

One of the senior workers was a big guy named Mike.   He was a street wise, strong, tough single father and pretty much didn’t take any B.S. from anyone; couldn’t afford to.   But we had a mutual respect because he could see I cared about the work I did and wasn’t some panty-waste just passing through after college on the way to bigger things.  At that point I at least had an ethic that said if there is a job to be done, no matter what it is, it should be done right.  So I went up and said goodbye, but also told him I wanted to make sure he hadn’t lost any respect for me.  For some reason, this was important to me.

“No, man, I haven’t lost any respect for you.   But you shook my boy’s hand and I don’t think I’ll ever understand that.”

Well, I am not completely certain I understand it fully either, but I was brought up to believe that you policed up your own stuff and sometimes you have to own the consequences of your thoughts and actions.   When you come to a fork in the road like that it’s always best to take the one that goes up.   If it takes eating a plateful of crow or downing a huge tanker of pride, fine.   Do it and get on with it, because without that choice and the knowledge of which is right, we aren’t much.

I have never been hit in the face since and I haven’t really had to choke down any feathers or drink that bitter, decaying glass of pride, either.   I like to think I was able to stay off the paths that even led to those forks.  Maybe, maybe not, but I will always remember that particular lesson I had to learn the hard way.