Have you ever been afraid for your life? Not just scared, but really concerned that you just might die — right here, right now.
It was a late summer evening and I was 15 years old. School had already started but the sun was still high enough in the sky that we could go out after eating dinner and cruise around town on our bikes — we ate early, 5:30 every day. My brother and I had ridden into town on our freestyle box bikes and met up with our friend Matt to go to Sheetz — Central PA and North Western MD’s incarnation of a 7-Eleven, except they didn’t have Slurpies.
We got some junk food and as we were leaving Andy and his crew walked in. He said something rude to me and I ignored it. Andy was my bully. Andy was 17 and huge. I knew to let his comments roll off my back like water off a duck’s ass. The three of us sat in the curb and indulged in our candy before starting to ride up the road. Before leaving we talked to a man and his wife (perhaps girlfriend) about how nice the night was. No more than ten minutes had passed.
We’d gotten about 200 yards from the Sheetz when Andy and his crew pulled up beside us in their dark green muscle car — maybe a Chevy Nova, or an old Pontiac, I don’t know for sure — and Andy leaned out from the drivers seat and screamed something at me. He was slurring his words. Clearly intoxicated. Slamming down the accelerator, he sped off. I thought it was over. I was wrong.
Somewhere he had turned around and came by to talk more shit to me. I was scared. He had a car and I had a bike. The three of us decided to book it and cut through the school to try to find safety. I thought that by doing this we’d effectively cut him off the chase. It hadn’t occurred to me that he might not need a road to drive on.
With Andy and his crew in hot pursuit, I peddled as fast as I could and made a beeline for a tree-line where there was a fence that he couldn’t get through in his car. But I also had to ditch my bike. There was a cut-down corn field on the other side of the fence and just beyond that field was Main Street, where Matt lived. It was perhaps 75 to 100 yards to safety. I made it about fifty before I felt Andy’s massive left had grab my shirt collar and flip me around so that his right fist had a clear shot at my jaw.
Matt had made it to his house and I watched him scale the privacy fence to get to safety. My brother was being held back by Andy’s crew and he was younger and smaller than me. We wouldn’t have had much of a chance against the four older boys.
Andy beat the shit out of me.
I was smaller, lighter, and unable to gather my wits to punch back. All I could do was shield my head as best I could. I remember, after a solid hook to the face, the ground rippling beneath me, thinking, “I’m gonna die,” as he pulled me up for another swing.
When I was sure that I was going to die, I heard the man from Sheetz shouting, “Hey, let that boy go.” I never got his a name but that man may have saved my life.
For many, many years, I held an angry grudge against my assailant. I’d wanted him to serve time. He didn’t, despite being a repeat offender and was my first introduction to the failures of our criminal justice system.
I sometimes thought about how I might get revenge. Either beat him or better yet, catch him in a crime and get him licked up. I wanted him to get hurt. I wanted to hurt him. I thought that if I could get even, I would feel better.
Every now and then, I would Google his name and once found a reference to him being in prison.
“Good,” I thought.
But it wasn’t good. Neither revenge and retribution, nor Andy’s poor choices and his incarceration would actually fix things. Nothing would fix things from that day. I’ll always have been brutally beaten. And I’ll always remember it. All that changed was knowing that he’d served some time. The anger didn’t go away.
As I’ve grown in my recovery, and as I’ve worked through my past traumas, I’ve learned that the way to heal from them is to find compassion for myself and for other. I’ve learned that forgiving others releases me of the burden of carrying the grudge.
When my son was attacked, I worked hard to find compassion for his assailant. I knew that there had to be something deeply wrong in his life that would lead him to attack a younger boy. I was right about that. I learned about some of his troubles in the court room.
Today when I think of Andy, I wonder what hurt him. I wonder what was so broken and wrong in his world that drove him to bully me. We knew his family. They were nice folks. His brothers and sisters were kind to me. I don’t have the answer. I probably never will.
What I do know, is that when I dug deep and cultivated empathy for Andy, I was able to forgive Andy for beating me up. I was able forgive myself for being weak and failing to fight back. And I was able to let it go.