Bicycling through the Midlife Crisis
It's not the way I had imagined unfaithfulness. An out-of-town business trip, maybe, but not a mission trip with my church. Some sleazy motel in a large city; not a sleepy Indian village in the Grand Canyon. With a seductive prostitute; not a co-worker. Not someone I knew.
How had it happened?
Maybe the first warning occurred a year earlier, in June of 1988, when I was asked by a friend to speak at a week of summer camp in Louisiana. Having just graduated from high school, my oldest child, Janet, accompanied me on the trip, giving father and daughter a chance to be together before she left for college.
The incident took place on our final night when about 10 high-school-age boys decided they would continue the tradition of Camp Pearl by tossing the adult counselors, including the special speaker, into the camp's swimming pool.
I have been in only one serious fight in my life. By serious I don't mean what my mother called "roughhousing," where guys wrestle each other to the ground and either pin the opponent or get them to give up by twisting a leg or an arm. Guys like roughhousing for the same reason they like tackle football—it's fun. I don't think I can explain it further. It's a guy thing. Serious fights, on the other hand, are not fun, at least not for most males I know. Serious fights, "street fighting," take place when the only rule is that there are no rules. Opponents strike in the face, kick, bite, throw dirt in one another's eyes, even use weapons—baseball bats or knives—to win, meaning to hurt the other person, usually to hurt him badly.
In my teenage years, the most serious fighters in Canyon were the Hackers. Frank Hacker was the leader and toughest of the bunch. I had seen him win boxing matches in local competitions, but his reputation was as a street fighter. He was both fearless and ruthless, meaning his opponent's face was normally reduced to a bloody mess, enough to discourage others from wanting some of the same. In another world, Frank's younger brother Billy Mac and I might have been friends. Yes, Billy Mac had an in-your-face attitude and a mouth to match, but he also was funny and strangely likeable. If I had read about him in a book, I would have found him a sympathetic character, his rebellion justified by the hard knocks that came from growing up outside the in-group in a socially segregated town like Canyon. And since I was a part of that in-group, we were bound to clash.
The rest of the Hackers consisted of various cousins and friends of the brothers, who may or may not have been named Hacker, but whom everyone called Hackers. These were not especially big boys, just wiry and tough looking; most carried battle scars, like crooked noses and cauliflower ears, caused by enforcing their will on others.
My fight took place on a summer evening in 1965. I had worked all day driving a tractor, pulling a one-way plow across weed-infested land owned by my Uncle J. C. I got home around 7:00 p.m., took a shower, changed clothes and borrowed my Granna's new Oldsmobile Sedan to attend a dance at the Bull Barn. I arrived at about 8:30 p.m. and parked the car. I could hear the live band inside, a local group called the Cavaliers, known for doing interpretations of British groups like The Dave Clark Five. A group of boys stood around the door; I recognized them as Hackers. As I walked to the Barn's entrance, I saw Billy Mac with his arm around his cousin Pete, and he was pointing at me. Suddenly Pete blocked my way. I tried to go around and he moved in front of me. I stopped and tried again, on the other side, but he again stood in my way.
"Got your Daddy's car, do you?" He taunted. "Let's see if the little rich boy can take up for himself." I guess I shouldn't have taken the Olds.
To this day, I don't know what came over me, but I bent my knees, getting in what my seventh grade football coach called the hitting position, and lunged at Pete, hitting him where Coach Winters said one was supposed to hit a running back, my face in his chest. I drove through the tackle with feet churning, wrapping the opponent with my arms. Winters would have been proud. We fell hard to the pavement, and it must have knocked the breath out of Pete, for I easily got a knee on each of his shoulders, pinning him to the ground. Now what?
In roughhousing, the game would be over. We would get up and wrestle some more. But letting Pete up would spell disaster. He would kick and poke and maybe bite, and I'd be a bloody mess. So I just hung on, shifting my weight and using my arms with every attempt to get me off. I knew my predicament was tenuous. The Hacker boys were yelling encouragements to their fighter and telling me what was going to happen just as soon as Pete could get at me. I knew they were right. I couldn't hold him all night, and even if I could, it wouldn't be long before one of the Hackers helped things along by knocking me off him. I could tell a crowd was forming around us, teenage boys like circling sharks, hungry to see first blood.
"Hey look everyone. Little Bellah's in a fight. Why he's captured a Hacker!"
I knew the voice. It belonged to Brent Johnson, a friend of my big brother Craig. If you've seen TV's Happy Days, think of the Fonz. In 1965 Brent was the Fonz of Canyon High School. He was the coolest kid on campus, loved by all the girls, admired by all the boys. I don't remember ever seeing Brent fight. He didn't have to. Everyone knew he was the best. No one was stupid enough to challenge him.
"Little Bellah, you want to fight this guy?" Brent queried.
"I just want to go to the dance." It was partly the truth. But I didn't want to get my face kicked in either.
"Hacker, he doesn't want to fight you."
I felt Pete relax so I let go of his arms, stood up and moved away from him. He leapt up, clenched his fists and looked to Billy Mac and Frank for orders.
"I said he doesn't want to fight—any of you." Brent glared at the Hackers.
And that was it. The Hackers left the dance, I went to the dance, and for the rest of my high school days, I didn't fear getting in fights. Somehow I thought Brent would show up to rescue me.
Well, Brent wasn't in Louisiana, but I wasn't worried. This was going to be roughhousing not serious fighting. I was not afraid; neither was I mad, but I was not compliant. For some reason I decided that no kids half my age—no matter how many of them there were—were going to throw me in that pool on that night.
"What's up guys?" I asked as if I didn't know.
"We thought you'd like to take a swim." A chubby, red-headed boy seemed to be the spokesman.
"Don't think I’m interested."
"We're not asking if you're interested."
"Yep," said Red's friend. "We thought we would help you in."
"Yeah, then you better get some more guys. And this time get some big, strong ones."
The challenge had been issued. It didn't take long for the charge to begin.
I'm still not sure how I pulled it off. I'm not a big guy, and while I've always tried to keep in shape, I'm no Chuck Norris. I didn't strike and kick—I didn't want to hurt anyone. Rather I grabbed and slung. After dodging the first kids who charged me, which wasn't hard because they weren't expecting any resistance, I grabbed the next one by the arm and flung him into his friends, a tactic I kept repeating. At one point, several of them did wrestle me to the ground where, I'm sure, they intended to hoist me on their shoulders and carry me the 100 feet to the pool.
But I grabbed Red's arm, and used the only judo move I know—one my father brought back from Patton's 3rd Army—which involved bending the boy's wrist to an uncomfortable position. He let go. I tried the move with another, then another, then slung a few more, and finally, they decided that perhaps Camp Pearle's tradition could be maintained by throwing some other adults in the pool.
We parted friends, laughing and joking about the roughhousing, but when the boys moved away, I slumped exhausted on my cabin's porch and stared into space. What was that about? Why was I so defiant? Where did that kind of energy come from?
What I know now is it had to do with midlife issues—the fear of getting old, of losing one's power, one's health, one's happiness. At any rate, it was a warning, like the Check Engine light on a car's instrument panel.
Except my light read Check Soul.
So the midlife stuff answers part of the why of my affair. I certainly had not gone to Supai, Arizona, with romance in mind. I had no prior feelings for the woman. Even more, we were together that night to sit up with a sick child—a sleeping, sick child. That's where the naiveté comes in. I had no business being with this person in this setting. I know that now. I also know my sin included more than just stupidity.
I crossed a boundary that night. I undressed before her. Not physically, but emotionally. And emotional nudity is ever bit as seductive as the physical kind. Years later, I would write about emotional affairs. Some minimize them as something short of and, therefore, not as bad as an actual affair. But I say they are not an alternative to, but a beginning to the physical kind.And whatever else extramarital affairs may be, they are a strong drug. When I left around midnight, returning to my own room, I was addicted. And I wasn't the only one. After sleeping fitfully for an hour or two, I woke to a knock at the door.