Evil, Jesse Owens, Notre Dame, Paris,

I Am Acquainted With Evils

I have recently been accused of not having enough evil in my life to be qualified to teach on it. This is ridiculous, as the following experiences will demonstrate.

When I was in high school, the band football team played the choir football team on Sundays. I was in the band. We played tackle football all afternoon until someone either died or broke a bone.

One Sunday, on the last game of the season, a choir guy named Dover Klips took a bad tackle to the leg. He writhed on the ground screaming, "My leg! My leg!"

"Aww, he’s all right," said another choir player, and two members of the choir team proceeded to drag Klips off the field by his leg.

Dover Klips came back to school the middle of the following week with a cast from his ankle to his hip. By God, it had been his leg.

AngerDover’s large and very mean friend Joe saw all of this and became—besides large and very mean—very angry. "The band will pay for this next season!" he screamed in a very mean and angry way.

"But you guys dragged him off the field!" we screamed in a panicked sort of way.

"I don’t care!" screamed Joe. "The band will pay next season! You will see!"

And so the calendar became our enemy, because we did not want to see.

Before we knew it, it was the first game of the next season. We were all in the school weight room lifting weights a half-hour before the game. Joe was at the leg machine. He was pressing a thousand pounds there. He pressed it again and again. Joe would not speak to anyone as he did this.

"Speak to us, Joe!" we screamed. But Joe would not say anything.

The clock now became our enemy. How we hated that clock! Geno Barnchover even threw a rock at it. But nothing can stay the hands of time. And so it became time for us to go to the field and start the game.

From the kick-off, Joe was in a trance, a trance of destruction. The trance took over Joe’s mind, while still allowing his body to injure members of our team. The abandon Joe used to tackle people that day still sits on that field fondling its leg hair and attempting to catch its breath.

Finally, Joe broke the collarbone of our quarterback, Paul Pugini. Thank God! We used that as an excuse to quit. Joe called us "Babies!" How we loved that title! We danced around it like fairies around a beautiful, golden Maypole. We gladly accepted it in exchange for returning home alive.

* * *


"Hello. Is Myopa Mead there?"

"Well, no. May I ask who’s calling?"

"This is Mrs. Melba Hurd. I’m an old friend of Myopa’s. I used to live at Sarah Mead’s old place."

"Oh! Sure!"

"To whom am I speaking?"

"This is Martin Zender. We’ve been living here for about four years now."

"Oh, my. It has been a long time."

"Where are you calling from?"

"I’m out here in San Diego now. I just thought I’d check in with Myopa."

"I’m very sorry, ma’am, but Myopa died a year and a half ago."

"Oh, no...!"

"Yes. I’m very sorry."

"She and I went to school together...is Frederick well?"

"No, ma’am. Frederick died in the nursing home last spring."

"Mercy! What happened?"

"....I can’t think of the name of the disease right now. I’m sorry about that."

"Well, it’s nothing any of us can help...And Sarah?"

"Dead. Passed away three years ago this fall."
Old lady
"What’s to become of us!"

"I’m sure sorry to have to tell you all this, Mrs.....Hord?"

"Hurd. Melba Hurd. Well, that’s all just terrible, as terrible as it can be. I wish I hadn’t lost touch for so long."

"We all get busy."

"But I am thinking of coming back to the area for a visit soon. I still know a few people in town...if any of them are alive, for mercy’s sake. I would like to see the town, to look around again."

"Are you from here?"

"Oh, yes. I lived in Big Lake practically all my life. I went to school at that old brick schoolhouse out on Route 8."

"I know the one! My wife Melody went to school there when she was in the third grade."

"A small world! That school has been around a long while then, hasn’t it?"

"Until three months ago."


"The school burned down three months ago."

"Don’t say so!"

"Nothing left but part of the boiler room."

"Well, I....what was your name again?"

"Martin Zender."

"Zender. Yes, well, my, um....my husband and I may be staying in San Diego this summer, I just don’t know."

"If you ever need anything, Mrs. Hurd, feel free to call me. We’re the Zender family. My wife’s name is Melody and I’m Martin. We’ve been living here for about four years now."

"Four years."

"Yes, ma’am. Well, good-bye, Mrs. Hord."

"Yes, well.....good-bye."

* * *

I used to think that the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris was holy. This deception occurred in 1976, when I equated holiness with musty smells and French names that meant "Our Lady."

I was standing inside Notre Dame cathedral in Paris in 1978 when Lisa Maas of our group blew a huge pink bubble and let it pop. The echo was something to behold, behold, behold, behold, and marvel at. I could not believe that anyone could do this audacious thing in the holiest place on earth. I became so upset that I ran over to where Lisa was conducting her blasphemies.

"Lisa! Don’t do that!" I said. "Have respect for one of the holiest places on earth!"

Lisa just sneered at me through her make-up and promised to spite me at another time, at another place in Paris. This occurred at L’Hotel du Progress in the district of Clichy two nights later. 

* * *

There was a man at the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris in 1978. It was Easter, and the man stood alone in a row of pews and extended his arms like Jesus did at Calvary. The man’s head slumped down and lay fixed on his chest, as if he’d just commended his spirit to God. The man did not move, and stayed that way. He, like his Lord, had been crucified. Candles and the cold stone surrounding him matched this death-vigil and elicited tears.

Suddenly, a very loud pop was heard to emerge from an American contingent standing near the north gargoyles.

                                                                 * * *

They ripped us off in Paris, France, 1978. The place was Montmartre. Montmartre is where the artists of Paris gather to rob Americans. I think Montmartre means "mount of martyrs." If this is so, it is so accurate.

My friend Paul and I posed for two artists at the Mount of Martyrs. Artists make lots of money Montmartredoing this kind of thing, especially to Paul and me.

My artist drew me and then showed me the portrait. It looked like Shemp Howard. I said: "Ce c’est ne moi pas, mais c’est la Shemp Howard." The artist smiled and said, "Merci!" He charged me something that sounded to me like three dollars, but that sounded like forty-nine dollars to him.

Paul’s artist finished his portrait and showed it to Paul. It really did look like Paul. For that, Paul was relieved of fifty-five dollars. We whistled as we rolled up our drawings.

We should not have shown our drawings to Madame Teacher, we both realize that now.

"These drawings are terrible," said Madame Teacher. "Especially yours, Martin!"

"Mer-ce, Beaucups."

"How much did you pay for them?"

"Five red bills and two green ones."

"Idiots! These sell for $2.50 American! We will find these ‘artists!’"

"Please don’t do that," I begged.

Madame Teacher could not find my artist, may God be thanked. But she did find Paul’s and began screaming at him in French. A policeman, or gendarme, stood by. He ended up revoking the man’s license.

My artist, had he not escaped, may have been shot by a bilingual madwoman with no tolerance for robbers.

* * *

Paul and I decided to run to L’Arc de Triomphe in Paris. This building is a misnomer in the middle of Paris.

We had talked about running to L’Arc de Triomphe for several weeks before going to Paris. Being runners, it was all the rage of our hopes and dreams. "We will run to L’Arc de Triomphe," one of us would say casually. Then the other would answer, "You bet we will!" But neither of us, at the time, knew what a misnomer was.

We deployed our scheme on our second morning in Paris. This was 1978. "Deployed" is the word I use here because Madame Teacher had forbidden students to leave the building. This is why we wanted to leave early. We wanted to unfold our deployment in the early darkness of anonymity and stupidity.

But the hotel door was locked from the inside with a key lock, and a Frenchman was sleeping on a couch near the door—and he had keys on his belt.

"Wake him," Paul said.

"You wake him," I answered. "He’s here to guard the door, can’t you see that? The door is locked. It looks like Madame Teacher doesn’t trust us."

"And neither does this Frenchman," Paul said. "But he’s asleep."

"Let’s leave him that way."

"BOO!" said Paul.

"What are you doing?!" the man asked, in French of course. (This is what he actually asked. To us, however, it sounded like, "Where do you eggs meditate you are going?"

Arc de Triomphe"We are going to run to L’Arc de Triomphe!" we answered in French. At least, this is what we think we answered. But we know now that we couldn’t have answered that, because the man unlocked the door and let us out.

We ran and ran toward L’Arc de Triomphe. But where was that confounded landmark? We stopped every mile to consult our map. But our map did not help us. In fact, our map hurt us because our map was of Lyon.

One hour and three miles later, we knew that we would never run to L’Arc de Triomphe in 1978, or possibly in our conglomerate lifetimes. We walked back to our hotel—and miraculously found it.

We could not get into the door because the door was once again locked. And there was the same Frenchman, sleeping on the couch.

"Pound on the door," Paul said.

We thought the man might ask about our run, but he didn’t, unless all questions in France consist of loud, one-syllable utterances followed by exclamation points. Perhaps he did not know that we had actually intended to run all the way to L’Arc de Triomphe.

* * *

I must have been three years old at the time of my first color memory, because my dad was sitting on a green bench at Mother Gooseland, and his knee looked large and blue as I considered its form through his pants.

I remember there being "goop" on the bench. I remember my dad saying either, "Let’s remove this goop," "There’s goop on this bench," or "Watch me get rid of this goop with a handkerchief."

Then I remember my dad withdrawing a handkerchief from his pocket and wiping up the goop. The goop was light brown, and today I believe it to have been chocolate milkshake residue.

My dad does not remember taking me to Mother Gooseland, let alone the goop.

* * *

I was very interested in anatomy when I was a kid. I studied skeleton charts all the time. I loved the names of the bones. "Tibia." "Humerus." "Spine."

SkeletonOne evening I had studied very hard and I decided to impress my parents. I found them in the kitchen. Holding my stomach and wincing, I said, "My spine hurts."

I can’t remember if they laughed. I don’t think they did. But they did tell me that the spine was in back, not in front. I slunk away.

I went back to my room, closed the door and looked again at the darned chart. The chart was not three dimensional, so it was a judgment call about the spine, about where it actually was, three-dimensionally. Well, I had made the wrong judgment, that’s for damn sure.

* * *

I was in my room one day writing a poem about fish and illustrating it with colored pencils when my mother came in. She looked over my shoulder and commented, "That’s very good, Martin." I blushed with pride. "How did you now what ‘roe’ was?" my mother asked.

"I looked it up in the dictionary."

Mom started to leave my room, but then stopped and said, "Did you hear about the Ferry’s dog getting killed?"

"No. What happened?"

"A man put poison in a piece of hamburger and gave it to it. Can you believe someone would do that to a poor dog? Some neighborhood kids stood around and laughed."

I wanted to wait for her to leave, but I could not wait for my mother to walk away before I put my head down on my desk and sobbed uncontrollably. And my mother, at my shoulder, could not console me.

* * *

I was doing a five-mile run one sunny fall day up Spencer Road. Spencer Road is nothing but cornfields until you get to Crescent, where the gas fields are. This was in the middle of the day, when nothing terrifying of the proportions I’m about to relate to you is ever supposed to happen.

I was running north when I heard something running after me. I turned with the energy of one completely startled on a quiet, country road.

There, coming after me, was a large kangaroo. I am not kidding. It’s body was huge and brown, and it just bore down on me. It bounded as it bore and I became terrified of its power and the singleness of its purpose, which was evidently to kill me. I could not believe how big it was, and how big it was continuing to become as it bounded and bore.

My heart pounded, and that is no cliché. "Fight or flee" is no cliché, either, for this built-in defense mechanism has been a helpful thing for many an eon. God has given man adrenal glands for the purpose of obeying this impulse. He has also given man trees for this purpose, but there was no tree near me; I was absolutely naked and exposed without a tree to climb. Fortunately for man, God has arranged for adrenaline to not only fuel man’s muscles, but to accelerate the rate of his thinking.

KangarooI would have to fight the kangaroo, I thought. I would have to disable it in some way. I love animals and I would never have thought of hurting a kangaroo. I had seen television documentaries on kangaroos and I respected them on television. But this was scarily not television. Reality changes everything, believe me. Adrenaline makes you think of doing things to a kangaroo that you would never ordinarily think of doing.

My life did not flash before me, but I did wonder during some millisecond of this drama what a kangaroo was doing on Spencer road. But this is the weird part: no answer occurred to me. I think I was experiencing some sort of mental triage. The brain, when forced to choose between 1) trying to figure out what a kangaroo is doing running loose in Ohio, and 2) trying to think of ways to survive an imminent kangaroo attack, will invariably (at least in my case) choose the latter thing.

So I decided to fight it. No. I would kill it. This was the adrenaline speaking, because I can’t kill anything. But I knew I would try to kill this animal. I would punch its mouth and kick it in the groin. I would hurt it badly, badly badly. I would maul it with my hands and scream in curdles while destroying it.

As the animal kept coming (and it did keep coming), something else occurred to me. (Chalk this up to the ninety-percent of human brain folds that divulge information only when bathed in adrenaline.) As the animal pounded closer, I thought: "This will make a good Drama in Real Life account." I really did think that. This was, I now know, the subliminal writer in me coming out. But I knew I had a Reader’s Digest story in this—easy. It was too weird and too scary not to make it. This story would make it for sure, and I would finally have a by-line in Reader’s Digest. I think a title even swept through my mind: Kangaroo Attack! But then a terrible thought (a sobering one) struck at that instant: The trick in writing a Drama in Real Life story is that, first and foremost, you must survive your drama.

This is what returned me instantly to the kill mode.

But then it happened. Just before the kangaroo would have leapt and begun kicking my head off, it veered into the cornfield. Only as it veered into the cornfield to my right did I see that it was a deer. I stood frozen. My God, I thought, it was a deer.

Only after several pints of adrenaline returned to their reservoirs did common sense return to my brain: that couldn’t have been a kangaroo; kangaroos live in Australia, not in Ohio. And the nearest zoo is sixty miles away. But during trauma, the mind doesn’t think of those things--not until later. It is only later that these rational thoughts occur. And it is only later that one tells oneself to wear one’s glasses the next time one runs.

* * *

Jesse Owens should not have been slumped into the folding chair. He should have been in Berlin, at the track. But here he was in Canton, Ohio, at the Pro Football Hall of Fame Mayor’s Breakfast. He was a very old man. No one was standing near Jesse Owens, so I went over to speak with him, the young boy rousing greatness.

"Jesse?"Jesse Owens

Up and over came the long, brown head. It came slowly and noiselessly.

"Yes, sir. Hello now," Jesse said.

I reached out and offered my hand to Jesse Owens. The great man took it.

Adolph Hitler would not shake the hand of Jesse Owens.

I wish I could tell you that there was strength in the hand of Jesse Owens. 

Photo credits: anger sign by "saragoldsmith"; old lady by "plaz zy"; artist by "Clades"; arc de triomphe by "alexdecarvalho"; kangaroo by "azrainman"; Creative Commons License; Attribution