tippy toes tommy

Mrs. McBride only had one nostril.  The other side just wasn’t there.  As a second grader, I had reason to look up at my teacher quite a bit and I’m telling you, she only had one nostril.  The other side was just skin, smoothly blended with the rest of her face, but no nostril.  I don’t ever remember her deformity being a topic worthy of heckling from the log structure at recess or anything.  But I sure remember that it existed.  Or didn’t, I guess.

My father was from the south.  His name, Robert Joseph, was suitably replaced with ‘Bobby Joe’ when he was growing up.  Some people still call him that now, although in Denver, the southern twang is somewhat out of its element.  He was an all-American football player in college.  When I was 19, I flew to North Carolina for his induction into the Hall of Fame at Wingate College.  My dad later played at Colorado State University.  He probably could have gone pro, but a back injury his senior year precluded him from furthering his athletic career as a participant.

I think he gave me the name ‘Bubba’ for two reasons, both personal.  For starters, I believe that my name helps keep my dad’s southern roots visible.  Invariably, introductions spawn an investigation of my parents’ motives when naming me, their first born.  My explanation that my father is a South Carolina native satisfies most inquisitions while, at the same time, adding vitality to his southern legacy.  It is also my quiet opinion that my name was a subtle nudge in the direction of my father’s archived football wishes, an empty vessel of stereotype he eagerly wanted me to fill.

My name wasn’t strange until I went to school.  I didn’t realize I wasn’t a Jeff, Mike, Matt or John until I met all of them.  I was a Bubba.  On the first day of school I met my first friend, Jeff Stewart, in the bean box of Mrs. Gregory’s kindergarten class.  On that afternoon, my new friend and I blazed the trail that would lead us home for the next 6 years of our lives together.  Jeff and his family lived just 4 houses from my own and I was lured to his abode on that day with a promised snack of peanut butter and crackers.

Entering the front door, Jeff called out to his mother “Mom, I’m home!”  She was in a back bedroom, apparently busy.

“Hi honey, how was school?” she called without materializing.

“Good,” he returned.  “I made a new friend!”

“That’s nice honey.  What’s his name?”

“Bubba!”

“Bubba?  Is he black?”

And so my first day of school earmarked the beginning of the crusade I continue to lead, the adventure of being misrepresented, interrogated and the brunt of many bad jokes, rhymes and public product references.  By first grade I’d heard them all…Hubba Bubba, Bubbalicious, Bubbles…  Although these nicknames were, many times, coined out of affection (some even by teachers) the singling out and accompanying giggles begged that I develop a thick skin rather early in life.  I wasn’t able to do that for many years.

I changed my name in the first grade.  My middle name is Scott and because of all the trouble I’d experienced with that other name, I decided a new title was at least worth a try.  Two days that experiment lasted.  The children that were resigned to rhyming and riddling with my real name were deflated and so they took to my new designation with an explorative determination.  “Scotty Potty” was the first re-directed effort and I knew then that I could never win.  The next day I was again a Bubba.  That was the hell that was my early latency life.  Day in and day out there was some discourse regarding my name.  And so, I did what any well-adjusted 7 year old would do; I found someone weirder than me to pick on.

Tommy Osborne, a.k.a. “Tippy Toes Tommy” was an appealing target for me.  Tommy had what I now know as cerebral palsy.  The motor cortex damage he experienced had caused him a tightening of the heel cords and subsequent irregularity in his walking.  Back then, he was just Tippy Toes Tommy, shuffling on the padded balls of his feet from one location to another.  Tommy was much smaller than all the other kids.  When he was sitting at his desk, his ankles and feet would swing like a pendulum, inches above the floor.  He also had thick lensed glasses.  Two chunky ovals of ice hitched to his round face with large black frames and an orange rubber strap.  His physical disabilities alone offered more taunting material than a second grade terrorist could ever ask for.  As if that wasn’t enough, Tommy was slower than the rest of the children.  He could not read, write or process information as quickly as the other kids.  I can’t remember if I coined the nickname Tippy Toes Tommy.  It wouldn’t surprise me if I did.  He hated it.  It would make him cry, tell Mrs. McBride and avoid social contact all together.  We kicked balls at recess.  We threw gravel and swung on swings and climbed to the top of the monkey bars.  Tommy wouldn’t even venture onto the playground.  He would shuffle back and forth in the shadows of the school, awaiting the bell that would permit him to again park himself at his desk.  I sat in the desk next to him in second grade.

On any given day, I could expect to be called Hubba Bubba.  I know now that my name is fun and rolls well off of a child’s tongue.  In second grade, that term of endearment caused me more torment than my seven-year old psyche was ready to contend with.  I would seek out Tommy and apply a balm to my wounds by flogging him with all of my hurt and anger.  My clearest memory of that time is one day sitting next to him calling him Tippy Toes Tommy and laughing.  We were practicing cursive writing, learning to scribe curly words by following a template of broken line letters.  Tommy stopped, midway through the cheeriest part of a “Q” and turned over his paper.  Every time I called him by the terrible name, he would make a single check mark on the back of his paper, one hash mark per miserable experience.  He told me he would tell Mrs. McBride about each incident if I didn’t stop.  I didn’t.  In fact, I increased the punishment.  “Tippy Toes Tommy Tippy Toes Tommy Tippy Toes Tommy!”  He would make a check each time, and then stare at me through tearful eyes, his lips tightly pressed together, wondering why I was delivering such harsh doses of evil to him.  And I did, over and over again.  Probably thirty check marks were made.  When I was no longer bearable, Tommy climbed down from his desk, shuffled up to Mrs. McBride and presented her with his tally sheet.  Maybe she didn’t want to pay my negative behavior too much attention.  Rather than admonish me, Mrs. McBride took the opportunity to remind the entire class that we should all respect one another and pay compliments whenever possible.  Tommy was defeated and I leered.  He glided on those toes of his back to his seat, collapsed into his desk and hid his head in his arms, sobbing.  Mrs. McBride noticed.

“Tommy?  Tommy!”

Nothing.

A quiet interest washed over that second grade class and all eyes turned to the boy that was rejecting the beckon of our leader.

“Tommy you’ll need to sit up like a big boy and pay attention.”

Tommy let out a shriek.  He threw down his spelling book and, as best he could, ran out of the room.  The class stared at Mrs. McBride in silence.  She stared at me.  She knew that I was the instigator, the rabble-rouser that disrupted our cursive writing lesson by causing the small disabled boy to rupture and tear out of the room.  But no one else knew.  The ache in my stomach was the searing of a memory leaving a scar that my character still bears.  I never did apologized to him.

John and Debbie Young were brother and sister, but they weren’t twins.  I think John was older, but we were all in the second grade.  Those two children were always dirty.  Smudges garnished their faces and their clothes were stained and rarely changed.  John was a bully.  He  never associated with any person or group for an extended period of time, but he wasn’t a recluse.  Most kids were afraid of John.  I know I was.  He was always the first one picked to be on a sports team although no one much cared for him.  Yeah, people were afraid of him.  He wouldn’t hesitate to lay a wallop on you either, sometimes just because John felt the world looked better with your face re-arranged.  I once saw him beat up a fourth grader for calling Debbie a name.  Two years older than us and he wasn’t even afraid!  And he had style!  John used all the language that I was never supposed to hear my father use.  He threw around four letter words like the rest of us ate fruit roll-ups, without thinking and one after another.  He also frequently re-ignited the Hubba Bubba campaign.  I always pretended that I thought it was cool that John would want to make fun of me, that I meant enough to him that he wanted to harass me.  I wonder if I ever really believed that.

I have no idea what I did to make it to the top of the John Young hit list.  I wish for the life of me I could remember.  I don’t know what it was that caused John to want to beat my head in, but he sure did.  He told me so.  And John could do it too!  Tough or not, I was afraid of him. He made me shake.  And on the day that he wanted to beat me up, I couldn’t focus on anything else.

When the bell rang at three o’clock, I beat it into the hall and headed for the office.  The rest of the kids left the classroom through the back door, outside to the playground.  It would do me no good to try and travel in a pack.  My mom told me that there’s safety in numbers but everyone I knew was just as afraid of John as I was.  So I went to the office.  I didn’t actually go into the office.  I just went there.  There was enough after school activity going on where I didn’t stand out as a wayward soul, loitering to avoid a beating.  I figured; if I could circumvent the attack and make it home, I’d have no problem pulling a sore throat for a couple of days until John had refocused his aggression on a new target.  So I stood at the fountain and drank water, probably two gallons.  And I bought pencils.  The machine in from of the office sold pencils with NFL teams on them for ten cents a piece.  I had been trying to get a Dallas Cowboys for weeks. At about three thirty the halls began to thin, as did my anxiety.  I knew where John lived and it was only a ten minute walk.  By three forty five I knew I’d be safe as a kitten.

I almost made it home.  I was only one block away when I saw him.  That made it worse too.  I saw it coming.  John was sitting in the grass with his sister and two thugs…waiting for me.  My plan had not at all worked.  Worse yet, I was alone.  There wasn’t anyone to step in and stop the massacre.

He laid it on me too.  It’s necessary for me to omit all the details of the fight…the catalyst, the dialog, the actual beating, because that’s how I remember it.  I think my seven-year old mind did me an incredible favor that I wouldn’t appreciate for years by repressing those details.  Regardless, I took a lashing on Croke Drive that day from the school bully.  I do remember one point, lying on my stomach with my face pressed to the concrete.  John sat on my back, riding my green parka like it was his custom fitted saddle.  His left hand clenched my hair and pulled my back my head while he reached around with his right and used the fleshy underside of his wrist to pummel my cheeks and nose while I wailed, whimpered and bled.

I believe he just tired out.  John finally became bored with beating me up.  I didn’t see him leave.  Not so suddenly, I simply realized that no one was sitting on me any longer.  A mixture of blood, mucous and tears had melded my face to the concrete, leaving a gelatinous puddle when I pressed my head away from the ground and rose to a knee.  My down filled parka had an abrasion on the left breast and bled white feathers.  Heaving cries sucked the goose feathers into my nose and mouth while others, pink from my blood, pasted themselves across the front of my ruined coat.  I finally pulled a wobbly leg beneath me and struggled to a standing position.  Timpani and chimes bellowed through my cranium as I began to drag my battered body in the direction of my house.

I was still crying.  Crying because I hurt, crying because I couldn’t stand up for myself, crying because no one had stopped the fight and crying because I was alone.  My eyes were squinted and spilling tears, so much so that the world took on a blurry, underwater appearance.  My nose hadn’t stopped bleeding.  I could taste the warm saltiness on my lips and in the back of my throat.

The first car to pass me was a small station wagon with wooden paneling.  It passed, going the opposite direction, and then made a u-turn.  I remember thinking I must have looked as hurt as I felt for an oncoming car to be so concerned with me that it would make an immediate u-turn.  I cried harder.  As the car eased to the curb the back door swung open.  Not many things could have stopped me from crying that day.  But what I saw did.  I stopped crying, stopped moving, I think I even stopped breathing.  Out of the back seat climbed Tippy Toes Tommy.

Tommy shuffled from the back door of his mother’s station wagon to the sidewalk where I stood, frozen.  His little eyes peered up at me from behind those chunks of ice and bounced around from my bloody face to my wounded coat.  I just looked at him, wondering what in the world he could want from me.  Mrs. Osborne ran around the back of the car and dropped to a knee, pressing a Kleenex to my nose.

“Oh, Bubba!  Are you all right?  What happened?”

What happened?  What did just happen?

It was Tommy’s chirpy voice that answered.  “John Young was being mean to him at

school today mommy.  He said he was going to beat him up.”

Her head wrinkled in concern.  “Oh!  Is that what happened?  Did you have a fight?”

I took a big sniff, but not big enough to recall the ooze running down my face.  I pressed my lips together and felt my cheeks tense up as I nodded an affirmative…and then burst into tears. Neither of them knew the real reason I was bawling.  Mrs. Osborne placed a wool mitten hand on the back of my head and gently pulled my head to her shoulder.  And then Tommy, Tippy Toes Tommy, wrapped his arms around me to add the final touches to a big hug sandwich on Croke Drive.

“Can we give him a ride home mommy?”

“Yes of course, we will,” she replied.

I was so ashamed.  “No!  No, I don’t want to get blood on your seats,” I blubbered.

Tommy’s little hand slid up my back, encouraging me towards the car.  “It’s ok mommy, isn’t it?”

“Yes.  C’mon Bubba, we have plastic covers on the seats.”  She dug in her pocket.  “Here, take these Kleenex with you.”

I took the tissue and the two of them escorted me to the wagon.  Tommy’s door was still open.  I climbed into the backseat.  He followed.

The half block that we drove to my house was the longest and most meaningful, trip I have ever taken.  My tears supply had expired somewhere on the street and so my shameful sentiments were voiced in empty heaves and muffled whimpers.  Tommy sat next to me the entire ride.  He was much smaller than I, so he knelt on the backseat to be tall enough to keep his arm draped over my shoulders and protect me from my demons.  I was so undeserving of any kind of sympathy and I knew it.  Tommy didn’t know it.  His reaction to me was such a raw act of  kindness.  I really believe that he never connected our agitated history with his gracious behavior on that day.  That would have been too complex for him.  Tommy saw the world in very simple terms.  He saw my pain and knew that feeling was horrible.

They dropped me off at my home at 9985 Lane Street.  Mrs. Osborne explained to my mother what had happened while I leaned against my mom’s hip letting her run her fingers through my hair.  Before they left Tommy gave me a final embrace and a kiss on the cheek.  He climbed back into his seat in the wagon and waved at me until the car turned at the top of the street.  He moved just after that.  In fact, I don’t remember ever seeing him again at Hillcrest Elementary School.

In ninth grade the football team I played for traveled nearly twenty miles for a game on a Friday afternoon.  Sometime during the game, my best friend Ed pointed out an unusual sight on the home team’s sideline.  Standing at the edge of the field, alone, just up from the opposing team, was a tiny figure watching the entire event through binoculars.  What a sight!  Whoever it was had a better view of the game than most of the players and binoculars were hardly called for.  A group of us continued to watch the game, and the figure, chuckling at the absurdity of using field glasses in such close proximity.  Pretty soon the figure lowered the binoculars and turned towards the school.  It was seeing the shuffle that erased my smile and washed out my stomach with an unmistakably familiar feeling.

It had been 7 years and I hadn’t talked to him.  I never even shared the story with anyone else.  I was too ashamed.  I had simply let the lesson earn its place in my life and moved on.  The minute I realized it was Tommy on the other side of the field I was flooded with emotion.  My helmet fell out of my hand and rolled around on the grassy sideline and I took off around the field, right there, right in the middle of the game!  He was nearing the gymnasium, shuffling up a grassy hill.  He still walked on the tips of his toes.

“Tommy!”  I called out.  He spun around and from 20 feet away the two of us faced each other for the first time in seven years.  We were young teenagers.  He smiled immediately, that simple smile, a smile that comes from the most basic part of a child’s soul.  My mind was racing.  He still had the same chunks of ice for glasses.  And Tommy gave me the same quick, childlike wave that he had given me seven years earlier through the back window of a wood paneled station wagon.  He had not changed a pinch.  My soul began to fizzle.  I remember my lips parting and my hand raising and returning the wave.

“I heard you would be here,” he grinned.

And then he turned around and disappeared into the school.

I never saw him again.  That was eleven years ago.  I’ve been looking for him lately, in the phonebook, on the internet.