I've got a cousin who killed a guy with a beer bottle. It was an accident by most accounts and I think that all he ended up having to pay for it was a short stretch for involuntary manslaughter
and a few more years on the probationary leash. It happened at a crowded party in a private residence in front of dozens of witnesses. Somebody said the wrong thing about somebody else's girlfriend or wife; the bottle was hurled and instant karma
got them both.
I never got to know the cousin very well. We met only once, as children and I have no recollection of him whatsoever. I'm sure that he is a nice enough person once you get past the fact that he killed a man in anger. My opinion on the issue might change if I was closer to the cousin or a friend to the victim but from where I'm sitting, justice was immaculate and swift. The bottle thrower learned that hostility is a beast that is difficult to control once unleashed and the victim learned the hard way to keep his big mouth shut.
About half of the people I run into are angry about something and since all of us are fragile, accidentally killing people must be a fairly common phenomenon. I was telling the story about my cousin to a guy at the bar and he began rifling through the newspaper he had on his lap. In the Metro/State section of that very day's paper was a story with a similar ending. Two men had been evicted from a nearby bar for hell raising and they resumed their fight on the sidewalk in front of the tavern with deadly results.
To say that fistfights in real life aren't anything like in the movies is a gargantuan understatement. The next time you are enraged enough to throw a fist you should pretend that you are holding a gun because hostility has a way of getting out of hand. According to the newspaper account of that particular fracas there was only one punch thrown. The victim fell to the sidewalk, hit his head against the curb and that was all she wrote.
The perpetrator in that case wasn't as lucky as my cousin because he wound up with 7 to 10 for the manslaughter rap. That's a long time to sit and dwell on one careless word or one spilt drink.
When the film "Billy Jack
" came out the resemblance of the title character to my brother Billy was startling
. It wasn't so much that Billy looked like Tom Laughlin
, though they did share some remarkable physical similarities but it seemed that they had modeled the character of Billy Jack after my brother's peculiar worldview. The details were obviously different
but the aggressive pacifism
of the stoic
Billy Jack seemed eerily similar to Billy's own.
If you haven't seen the film, you should, but not for its cinematic brilliance because it hasn't any. The hero, Billy Jack, champions the cause of an open school populated by peace loving hippies who become so irksome in their mellow communal utopia that the modern viewer will likely root for their demise.
The message of the film, if there is any coherent message at all, is confusing and contradictory. Non-violence is portrayed as the ultimate good but it would seem the only way to accomplish it is with frequent ass kicking by the martial artist and former Green Beret, Billy Jack. The hero is what they used to call a half-breed, equal parts noble Native American and Anglo-Saxon white devil and he returns from the white man's war in Vietnam to wage reluctant battle against racist rednecks in America.
I liked fishing
well enough; I just hated catching fish. I used to put my line in the water with a sinker
and no hook
to keep up appearances and spare the prey but Billy got wise eventually. When he tied a hook onto the end of my line I only pretended to bait
it but to my dismay the shiny hook alone snared the occasional sunfish or striped bass.
I started giving Billy grief about the casual cruelty of his hobby and he hated me for it. He had a single-minded enthusiasm for fishing since he was old enough to walk and showed little interest in anything else. I was no longer welcome on most of his fishing excursions.
There is a quiet violence in fishing for sport that Billy had always been able to minimize through respect for his prey. He never took more from the pond than he could clean and eat that day and his opponent was regarded with reverent dignity right up until the filet knife ended its existence. It was obviously a bloody endeavor but Billy treated it with far greater solemnity than the beer-bellied yokels did on the Saturday morning fishing shows.
He behaved more in the Native American tradition, living synergistically with nature, quietly grateful for its gifts. There was nothing intentionally cruel in the way Billy treated the fish or the live bait and I felt terrible for tweaking his conscience on the matter.
Our father traveled frequently on business so the older kids were charged with looking after the younguns and Billy was forced to pal around with me whether he wanted to or not. He'd rather swallow a hook himself than take his whiny little brother fishing anymore, so alternate pastimes were explored and tennis emerged as our primary activity. Our old man was a tennis buff so there was a pile of equipment in the basement and since court time was free at the elementary school on the hill, it fit perfectly within our budget.
We were as unlikely a pair of tennis players as you will ever see. The country club set would have winced at my cut off blue jeans and Led Zeppelin T-shirt but Billy's wardrobe would have sent them fleeing the court in hysterics. He had taken to wearing a pseudo-Native American fringed leather jacket everywhere he went, summer and winter, with matching flat-brimmed heavy leather hat. How I'd love to have a photograph of him standing there, all bad-assed Billy Jack in leather with his pale, bony chicken legs sticking out of borrowed white tennis shorts.
Everything goes better with beer and tunes so Billy would pull his Charger right up next to the tennis courts and put the speakers on the roof; trunk open for accentuated bass thrust and easy access to the cooler. He had a cassette deck in the car that could play both sides of a tape in a continuous loop so ZZ Top Fandango blared across the tennis courts, over and over again.
The quality of ZZ Top's music increases in direct proportion to the amount of beer consumed so by the time the beer chest was empty we'd have Fandango cranked up to eleven.
Billy began his training
in the martial arts to learn to defend himself against tough guys but the discipline eventually seeped into every area of his life. If you have ever known a seriously devout martial artist
you've seen the paradoxical serenity that such well-focused violence can engender. I suppose it must be calming, in a way, to know that you can beat the living crap out of any idiot you encounter. He studied Shodokan
, under a world renowned master
but ultimately developed and practiced his own training regimen that would have made his sensei
blush with pride.
Name a warrior skill and Billy had been to the end of it and back again. Throwing stars and fighting staffs were mastered mostly for fun but the long sparring sticks looked a lot like pool cues and held the promise of some real world application. He would tell you that the knife throwing was merely to hone his hand eye coordination but the outline of a humanoid on the old door he threw them at betrayed a darker potential. Eventually he could turn and throw from fifty feet in a mostly darkened room and hit a piece of electrical tape the size of a dime.
In addition to the normal rigors of the dojo, his workout regimen included several hours each day of ritual self-flagellation to thicken his skin against assault. Many of the exercises he performed were shocking and difficult to witness, self-induced blows from a hard oak kendo sword or an intentional nunchaku strike to the back of his own head. Billy would shake off the stars and force himself to keep the concussion at bay and remain conscious to continue the good fight. It took him awhile to convince his girlfriend to punch him in the face as hard as she could but I think that she actually grew to enjoy the sessions.
The depth of his commitment to toughening and pain tolerance are best illustrated by an exercise that he performed first thing every morning when he got out of bed. Billy lived in a crummy little efficiency apartment at the time, with an uncarpeted concrete floor that doubled as a sparring partner. When he awoke he would kneel on the edge of the bed with his hands clasped behind his back and fall chest first onto the unforgiving cement. He considered his exercise a failure if he let out a whimper or lost his wind and repeated the punishment until he got it right.
I questioned his sanity at the time but came to understand why it was more important for Billy to be able to absorb a blow, rather than deliver one.
We both ran with gang
s in those days but me and my punk friends were more like the little rascals in the "Our Gang
" films than the Crips
or the Bloods
. Billy's buddies were the genuine articles, dealing quantities and stealing wheels
, kicking ass and breaking hearts. His best friend from the bad old days is still inside
for beating up a couple of cops who mistook him for a cupcake.
I wanted to be just like Billy when I grew up so I bugged him to spar with me and teach me to be a karate man. He was kind of a little guy but his mastery of the science of fighting drew hushed respect in every room that he entered. I watched him back down guys twice his size with little more than a heavy look and oh, how the Sheilas swooned for a genuine badass.
By the time Billy was qualified to teach the martial arts he wanted nothing to do with hand to hand combat. He told me that I shouldn't enter into a fistfight unless I was prepared to kill a man and if that was the case, I should buy a gun instead. All of his training could be distilled to the effectiveness of knowing a couple of dozen ways to take the life of a human being with one strike.
"It ain't like in the movies, Jonny, a real fight lasts a couple of seconds, tops. Why the Hell would you trade punches with an idiot when you can crush his larynx or jam his nose up into his brain and kill him dead?"
"I just want to learn to defend myself if things get ugly."
"The best defense when things get ugly is to run away, little man."
The beer cooler was half-empty
and ZZ Top's Fandango had made three or four complete loops around the tape deck by the time we were joined by tennis players on the other court. They were giving us dirty looks and I remember thinking that it might be a good time to change the tape or perhaps turn the volume down a little until they became acclimated.
"Hey, Wilbur, you think we should kill the tunes?"
"Kill the tunes? It's the best little ol’ band from Texas for chrissake. Screw 'em if they don't like ZZ Top. We were here first."
ZZ Top is sort of the tequila of rock and roll music. You don't sip tequila you slam it.
"Hell, I'd turn it up louder but the speakers keep vibrating off the roof of the car."
There were three of them playing on the neighboring court, two big clunky guys going doubles against a wiry little athletic looking dude on the other side. The single guy was obviously a serious tennis player or at least he considered himself as such because he was attempting high velocity overhand serves that would have been worthy of Pete Sampras if they didn't keep slamming into the net for repeated losses against less skilled opponents. Every time he missed a serve or double faulted he'd swear loudly or smack his expensive racket against the fence or the hard clay court.
The angry guy's theatrics became increasingly vocal, curses that would make a dock worker blush, almost drowning out ZZ Top's kick-ass live version of Jailhouse Rock. When he finally blew his top, I suspect that the real culprit was his false sense of grandeur with a tennis racket and that his high opinion of his own skill doomed him to failure. He blamed the tunes.
"Turn that f**king noise off NOW!"
He directed his edict at Billy but I immediately moved to turn down the music. My brother shot me a stern look, waved me off and took matters into his own hands.
"That's no way to ask for something, buddy. How'd you ever get so old without learning please and thank you?"
The guy absolutely freaked out. His spendy composite racket shattered when he slammed it to the ground and ran toward my brother with murder in his eyes. As I moved toward Billy's side of the net, both of the angry guy's companions moved to stall my progress and hold me in place, one on each arm.
Billy shed the tasseled jacket to play tennis but he kept his trademark leather hat on as always. He did everything but shower wearing that hat; the two of them were inseparable. When the angry guy knocked it off of his head and challenged Billy to fight, I got a chill down my spine.
It's funny that at the time the worst thing I could imagine
is that Billy would kill the guy and have to go to prison over something stupid. It never even occurred to me that he might be in physical danger himself. When the angry guy cold cocked him in the jaw and Billy did nothing to stall the fist, I didn't know who to be afraid for.
"C'mon you pussy. You're gonna just stand there while I kick your ass?"
Billy worked his jaw a little and checked for loose teeth with his tongue as he spoke.
"That all depends. Are you going to kick my ass because you don't like ZZ Top and have terrible manners or because you're a crappy tennis player?"
Boom. The left hook caught the other side of Billy's jaw hard enough to loosen his children's teeth. When the angry guy dropped back into a karate stance and started cocking his leg for a kick I tried to wrestle free from the grip of his companions to no avail. I would have been all for calling it a day and running away but that didn't seem to be an option so I tried to goad Billy into offensive action.
"Get 'im, Billy, before he cracks open your coconut!"
Boom. Such a sloppily executed roundhouse kick wouldn't have been much of a threat if the target wasn’t just standing there with his hands by his side. In bare feet the sissy kick would have just glanced off of Billy's forehead but the rubber soled tennis shoe cut a gash that followed the line of his eyebrow and began the first in a long series of flowing wounds.
"I'm a brown belt from Chicago and you're gonna wish you'd never run into me."
Billy spat blood with every word as he responded to the angry guy with unreasonable serenity.
"They must have a different kind of martial arts in Chicago because the first thing sensei taught us was respect."
The hothead resumed his assault, punching Billy over and over again, squarely in the face until blood was flowing from both nostrils and cuts in both of his lips. The gash above his eye became a chasm, torn wider with every smack, splattering droplets of blood around a wide circle on the clay court. Billy stood entirely still, feet planted in the exact position they were in before the madness commenced, like a statue anchored to a pedestal.
Just when I thought the angry guy had come to his senses and stopped the terrible beating he caught his breath and unloaded the big guns. It appeared to be pissing him off that he couldn't knock Billy down so he kept kicking him harder and harder, first his chest, then his abdomen, then his kidneys.
Billy just stood there bleeding.
I can now summon as tough an exterior as the next guy but I was only thirteen years old at the time. I gave up yelling for Billy to fight back and began to cry, certain I was going to watch my brother die that day.
The angry guy's companions
seemed to sense that they were on the brink of an accessory to manslaughter rap because they eventually became emphatic in their own appeal to stop the spectacle. By that time the perpetrator was bent over in exhaustion, incapable of delivering much of a wallop, huffing his wind as though he had just finished a marathon
They collected their tennis equipment and their volatile little friend and drove off into the sunset. Billy was standing in the exact same spot he had been in when the beating began, bleeding from a dozen wounds, Fandango still blaring from the car stereo.
I got to drive the Charger for the first time ever that day because both of Billy's eyes were swollen shut. You should have heard the girl at the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant shriek when we walked in the door and asked if we could use their restroom to get him cleaned up. His face looked like ground round and his entire torso was a mass of bloody shoe prints and wildly colored bruises. He was absolutely painted in his own blood from head to foot and that poor girl must have assumed he had fallen out of an airplane.
Billy spat one of his front teeth into the sink and as I unrolled toilet paper for temporary bandages he lisped,
"Tennith ith kinda rough, maybe we oughtta try golf."