December 30, 2007

I Gave All My Fear to Charlie


One night when I was in the fourth grade, my parents both came into my room and sat down. It looked like I was about to get yelled at for something, or be told that someone had died unexpectedly. I began to get worried.

            Instead, they asked me if I would be interested in helping Charlie get his Eagle Scout badge. He could really use my help, they said. Thing is, the way they asked it, I knew full well it wasn’t a question at all, and the answer had nothing at all to do with my desire to help Charlie out or not. It was clearly a done deal. This was simply their nice way of coming in and telling me exactly what I was going to be doing for the next couple of months.

            I should tell you a little something about Charlie.

            Now, Charlie’s family went to the same church we did (Ascension Lutheran, down on Libal Street). We’d known them for years, and they were good friends of the family. His father was a short man, bald with caterpillar eyebrows. He was a very successful lawyer in town who would later become a judge. Charlie was about my sister’s age—a handful of years older than me. He was also pretty short, and would later go prematurely bald.

            Charlie was one of those go-getter types. He got good grades and took part in every extracurricular activity you could imagine. He did volunteer work around the city and, if I’m not mistaken, had at least three businesses up and running before he graduated high school. To make things even more annoying, he was an incredibly nice, funny guy.

            So it came as no surprise that Charlie was on his way to becoming an Eagle Scout. That’s what all perfect people and future presidents do, right? Being an Eagle Scout is like being in Skull & Bones. But in order to achieve that, he needed to complete one more project, and to complete that project, he needed my help.

            My parents weren’t really sure what the project was, or if they were, they weren’t telling me. All I knew was that the following week, I was supposed to meet Charlie in the gym after school.

            When I showed up at the appointed place and time, Charlie wasn’t around, but a few other people were. We all just milled about the small elementary school gym, confused. Much to my relief, I knew them all—in fact I’d known them all since the first grade.

            There was Pat (the smelly retarded kid), and Brian (the German kid whose accent and difficulty with the language left everyone thinking he was retarded), and Dennis (the fat kid), and Greg (the other fat kid), and the kid with the limp whose name I’ve long forgotten. And me.

            (Just a quick aside here. The smelly retarded kid, Pat, had a brother named Mike. Mike was two years older than Pat, which meant they were often in the same school together. Perhaps because their resemblance to each other was unmistakable, people usually assumed that Mike—who was not smelly and of perfectly normal intelligence—was retarded, too. That’s just the way people operated back then. Thinking back on it now, I thought it was pretty funny.)

            Anyway, a few minutes after I showed up in the gym, the door opened again and Charlie walked in. He was wearing a gray sweatshirt and shorts, and had a whistle on a string hanging around his neck. That’s when the first horrifying truth struck me—I had unwittingly agreed, in order to help my old pal Charlie get his goddamned Eagle Scout badge, to participate in an after school gym class. I didn’t even want to participate in my regular gym class, let alone another one after school two days a week.

            It took a few sessions for the second horrifying truth to strike me: Not only did I have to deal with after school gym classes—I had also somehow been lumped together with the retards, the cripples, and the fat kids.

            What the hell was the deal with that? I wasn’t any of those things. This was all too awful to contemplate. Was I being punished for something?

            Even though he never explained it in so many terms, it was clear that Charlie was earning his badge by setting up a program for defectives. That he had approached my parents behind my back only made things more humiliating.

            Then he told us that by participating in his program, we’d get out of regular gym class. That softened the blow considerably. Humiliation aside, I figured that now at least I would be taking gym with a bunch of kids who, in their own way, were on a level with me athletics-wise.

            Two nights a week over the next few months, Charlie offered friendly encouragement and blew his whistle while our motley crew of limpers and flappers tried to play basketball, climb ropes, and run laps. I’ll give him this much—he was the nicest gym teacher I ever had. And that led to the saddest thing of all. As time went on, that hopeless group of feebs became a . . . team. We still ignored each other in the hallways (and I for one never told any of my friends that I was part of the program), but once we were in the gym and no normal kids were around to make fun of us, we worked together, encouraged each other, tried our damnedest to do a good job. It was like we had become part of a secret society. I came to embrace my defectiveness.

            Charlie even began promising us that he was going to try and set up an actual basketball game with another school (presumably one of those “special” schools). It never happened, thank god, but when he told us that it might, we were grotesquely and sadly excited at the prospect. We smiled and slapped each other on the back. It was more like How’s Your News? than The Bad News Bears.

             I did sometimes step back and try to imagine what Charlie must have been thinking as he watched us tripping and fumbling and shooting basketballs that were yards off target. We weren’t a pretty sight. Maybe so long as we were moving and seemed to be having fun, that was all that mattered.

            I remember clearly the day that Pat climbed the rope. He had trouble controlling his arms and legs, and so of course it made climbing a rope extremely difficult. But that day, as we all gathered around on the mat below him, he did it. It took awhile, but when he made it to the top, he slapped the yellow tape on the ceiling, and we all cheered. It wasn’t a snide or ironic cheer, either—not even a cheer of simple relief. Pat had tried to climb that fucking rope a dozen times since the program had started and had never made it more than a few feet off the ground. His victory that day was a victory for all us defectives.

            Shortly after that—and quite possibly because of that—Charlie’s program ended abruptly. He’d apparently done all he needed to do for the Eagle Scout committee (“Just get one retard to climb a rope, that’s all you need to do.”). Now he was going to get his badge, and the rest of us had to go back to regular gym class, where we’d be hassled and mocked and demoralized again.

            A few weeks later, I received an invitation to the awards ceremony where Charlie would become an Eagle Scout. It was in a church, as I remember, and a lot of people showed up. Pat was there, smiling a crooked smile and wearing a crooked clip-on tie. He and I were the only two from that after school program who made it. I can’t speak for Pat, but I figured it was a big deal, and we helped make it happen. In fact, he couldn’t have done it without us. Charlie, however, ignored us completely. Didn’t say a word.


You can contact Jim Knipfel at this address:

With occasional exceptions Slackjaw generally appears weekly. For email notification of other Jim Knipfel publications (books, etc.) and events please join the Slackjaw email list here.