This is the true story of the one and only act of deliberate brutality I have ever committed.
When I was growing up in the sprawling village of Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, I lived down the block from an overgrown tyrant of a boy one year my senior who entertained himself by abusing the smaller of his neighbors. Approaching two decades on, I find I can't remember his name. It might have been Randal, Randy but I'm really not sure anymore. It's hardly important.
I need to qualify that he never beat me up, per se. He would push and shove. He would wait in the bushes until you had buried yourself in a pile of fall leaves and then sit on you until you begged for air. He would demolish snowmen. He would pelt stones at smaller children on bicycles hoping to see them fall. He would steal school books or trinkets and dare his quarry to report him to their mother or to his, knowing that most would not. If he were, in fact, tattled upon, he would unceremoniously dispose of, typically via storm drain, the burgled item.
Telling parents was no use with Randal. He was a latchkey kid with a mother so guilty about her own perpetual absence from his life that she would never believe the reports of other parents or, if she did believe them, she was so desperate to keep her son's favor that she wouldn't dare punish him. And so the taunting and the vandalism and the thousands of repetitions of "Why are you hitting yourself?" and such dragged on for much of my time in second and third grade.
The summer I turned nine I was given a basic carpenter's set. I briefly thought that I might want to be a carpenter and build houses or to be a puppeteer and sculpt wooden effigies the way my father had. I was also in scouts and, devoid a conventional father figure, not performing well in sports, outdoorsmanship or crafts. Thus the tools were of great concern to me.
I had been building something on the back patio, perhaps a birdhouse. Like Randal's real name, the object is not really relevant. I had been working at it for most of the morning when Randal came past, knocked my work to the ground and crushed it underfoot, laughing all the time. He saw me with the hammer and was fearless, knowing well that I, like the rest of the neighborhood children, was afraid to strike him. To show his confidence he put his hand, palm down, on the saw horse and dared me, "Come on, hit me with the hammer," he repeated a half dozen times in the sickly nasal voice he favored when taunting. Mocking my rage with pouting lips and smug satisfaction he chided me again and again to crush his fingers with the hammer.
Which I didn't do.
I did, however, have a nail in my left hand, a long roofer's nail with a head the size of a dime that I had been about to drive into my project before Randal destroyed it. With one swift stroke I poised the nail over the back of his hand and drove it clean through and into the wood below, sticking him to it. Randal didn't cry out. He didn't curse or cry. He just stood there with a face full of disbelief as I took a second nail from the box and calmly drove it in beside the first, nailing him twice over to my grandfather's weathered sawhorse.
I didn't gloat or taunt or wait for a response. I went into the house and drank a glass of juice, which seemed perfectly reasonable at the time. I then dug in the basement for three or four minutes for a pair of heavy wire snips. Returning to the back yard I found Randal, still speechless, nailed where I had left him, looking like he was just short of crying from pain or at the knowledge that if he were to call for help he was unlikely to receive it. I clipped the heads off the nails. With an audible gasp from Randal, I pulled his hand up and off. I then gathered my tools into my grown - up sized toolbox of which I was so proud and picked up the carcass of my carpentry endeavor, which I dropped in the patio trash bin. I went back in the house without another word. Neither I nor anyone in my small circle of friends was bothered by Randal again.
I don't know what he told his mother. Perhaps he made up a story as to how he injured his hand. Perhaps he tattled on me and she didn't believe him. Perhaps she had a row with my mother who never told or punished me because she was secretly proud of me for confronting him so decisively. I don't suppose it matters anymore. I do remember that I saw him the day before my family moved away, some two and a half years later and he still sported a nasty pair of scars. I imagine he has them still and I wonder what kind of person twenty seven year old Randal might be compared to the ten year old I feared.
On very rare occasions, violence is the answer.