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I was driving west on I-90 across North Dakota, headed for Boise, Idaho, a twenty-two-hour drive from my home on the north
shore. Driving has always been therapeutic for me as it gives me a lot of alone time and time to think. On this trip, I was thinking about two guys in my graduating class at school.
After moving to Iowa in the middle of my eighth-grade year – I was the "new kid" at Washington Junior High. That's where I met Brett and Bart Culver; twin brothers in my grade. They were always nice when I saw them, which was cool. Most students didn't pay attention to a new kid, but a few went out of their way to give me a hard time. I didn't like that at all.
Brett and Bart were always friendly to me, even though we didn't hang out together. I knew their dad was a minister, and they had a younger brother, Scott. The twins were tough as oxen. I'd bet if you could get them into a harness, they could easily pull an eight-bottom plow through a farm field. The two were not only strong,they were also fair.
Although they had been in their share of scraps, these two never picked on anyone. I never knew them to start trouble, but if you wanted to go the rounds, they never backed down either. A good clean fight seemed to be a sport to them.
I respected Brett and Bart for their upstanding values; it might also have been because they were strong. I, on the other hand, was not. While I was in junior high and senior high school, the word scrawny would best describe my build. I didn't grow up (physically) until after I graduated. Scrawny kids didn't go looking for trouble; we avoided it. Because of this, we often got picked on – today, the term is bullied.
As I drove across I-90, I thought more about these two guys. Brett lived in Boise, which was my destination. Maybe we could get together to visit on my way through town.
I called to see if Brett could meet for dinner Thursday. "I'd love to meet up," he said, "but I'm out of town on a business trip until late Friday. How long will you be in town?" Unfortunately, early Friday morning, I had to be on the road home. We talked for a while, then Brett said, "I'm sorry it didn't work out. Make sure you call me next time you're going to be in town."
Over the next several months, I would pass through Boise a few times. Again, I called Brett, but he was traveling for work each time. So maybe it just wouldn't work for us to meet up.
Then one time, I was making a trip to Mc Call, Idaho. It was 120 miles from Brett's house, but I thought I'd check in. When I called, Brett said he would be home Friday night; I would get to Boise Saturday morning. So, finally, we were going to get together.
"Can I borrow your kitchen when I get there," I asked Brett? The question caught him off guard. "I want to bake a pie for you while I'm there."
"You don't have to do that, buddy," Brett said.
"I know I don't have to, but I want to do this," I told him. "What's your favorite kind of pie?"
"Well, if you insist, I’m not going to turn you down. I would love one of those cherry pies you're always writing about."
Brett and his wife Karen stood in the kitchen while I made the pie. We enjoyed catching up on where we'd been and what we've been doing since high school. Finally, I finished weaving the lattice top and put the pie in the oven. While the pie was baking, I leaned against the counter and told Brett a story:
In our senior year of high school, my dad's radio station sponsored a Lion's Club Donkey Basketball fundraiser. A big crowd gathered in the Evans Middle School gym. The people wanted to see the radio station disc-jockeys beat the Ottumwa Police Department's officers. I was skeptical of the outcome. Disc jockeys are known more for their ability to run off at the mouth than their athleticism.
At the event, Geoff B. approached me aggressively in the hallway outside the gym and wanted to fight. I tried to blow him off by telling him I would not fight anyone at the fundraiser my dad was sponsoring.
Brett asked, "What was the fight about."
"The same thing that causes all fist fights between high school boys; a girl, of course, and I don't even remember her name." We shared a good laugh about that.
Anyway, I wasn't going to fight Geoff. Not just because we were at an event Dad sponsored, but Geoff was also a lot taller than me and probably fifty pounds heavier. He would have killed me!
When I tried to walk away, two guys grabbed me, one on each arm, and drug me backwards up the staircase to a dark, secluded landing. Geoff and one other guy followed. Geoff said, "We're going to settle this right now." I told him again that I wasn't going to fight him and started to walk away. The third guy moved to block my escape. The other two guys grabbed me by the arms again, slamming me into the brick wall. Then they lifted me off my feet, holding me against the wall. I was scared to death.
Geoff punched me once in the gut, nearly knocking the wind out of me. They had me pinned to the wall, with my feet dangling off the floor. I tried to kick him away, but the next punch came faster and harder. Finally, hitting me in the chest, Geoff took the rest of my breath away. Yelling for help felt like a cowardly thing to do, but I was in trouble. I tried to call for help, but with no wind, no sound came out; besides, no one would have heard me over the noise from the gym.
The next punch Geoff threw was coming right for my face. I dodged my head to the left, and he punched the brick wall – hard. Geoff cussed, then threw another punch at my face; this time, I leaned my head to the right. He grazed my left cheekbone hard enough to leave me with a scrape and a shiner, but still, most of that punch landed on the bricks, too.
Geoff cussed some more, then landed two more direct hits to my stomach. I wasn't sure if I could keep from throwing up, but one thing was sure: I wouldn't let him see me cry, regardless of how scared I was.
Geoff stared at me with anger but an evil grin on his face; I could tell he was enjoying this. Meanwhile, I couldn't stop my shaking. I was sure he would punch me in the nose or the mouth. I wanted to close my eyes tightly and pretend this wasn't happening, but I didn't dare take my eyes off him. Moving my head to avoid getting hit was my only defense as his two thug buddies continued to hold me. Finally, I remember thinking, 'Maybe if he draws blood, he'll leave me alone. If I could just take one more punch.
Just as Geoff cocked his fist, two people came up on the landing. "What's going on here, men," one of them asked with an authoritative tone of voice?
Geoff was startled by the voice and turned to see who it was. "Just teaching Palen a lesson; teaching him to mind his own business," he said.
When Geoff turned away, I also glanced over to see it was. Oh, my Lord. It's Brett and Bart Culver.
Their presence didn't relieve me because I wasn't sure if they were friends of Geoff until Bart said, "Well, boys, four against one doesn't seem very fair, but four against three sounds okay." When he said this, I immediately looked to the steps expecting to see their younger brother Scott. However, when Scott didn't appear, it occurred to me that I was the third person in the trio.
Being one of the three only raised my anxiety again. I wasn't big enough to take any one of my assailants. Suddenly, I realized that Bart spoke metaphorically when he said, "four against three." They certainly did not need my help.
With a grin and a glimmer in his eye, Brett looked as if he was ready to have some fun. He raised his arms and clenched his fists, taking a stance, ready to fight. "Well, come on, boys. Let's get it on," he said, dancing a couple of steps forward. Finally, I felt relieved. I knew that I had just been saved the moment he spoke those words!
The thug guarding the stairs turned and ran down the steps like a chicken. The two holding me up against the wall, still with my feet off the ground, immediately turned me loose and fled to save their skin in a consistent cowardly fashion. As soon as they released their grip, I dropped maybe four or five inches. I had to focus on keeping my knees from buckling and falling all the way down on the floor.
I remember looking at Geoff. With his hands held open, he slowly backed away from the twins, pleading, "Come, Brett; Bart. This doesn't involve you." The three exchanged words, but no punches; I don't know what they said; I was trying to compose myself and hide my embarrassment.
Geoff disappeared down the steps. Bart asked, "Are you all right, Palen." I told them I was okay.
"They aren't going to bother anymore," Brett assured. Then the duo sailed down the steps taking them two at a time, like Batman and Robin, after saving the day. "They don't even have capes," I muttered while following somberly. Finally, Brett and Bart turned and disappeared into the crowded gym.
The audience was cheering as one of our guys finally made a basket from his mule. Through the double doors, I saw the scoreboard on the far end of the basketball court. The police were beating the pants off our DJs. Dad looked my way from behind the scorekeeper's table; I was hoping he couldn't see the raspberry under my eye. I walked through the front door of the school building and out to my car. I just wanted to go home.
I finished telling my story while the pie was in the oven. "I don't remember any of that, Tom," Brett said, not surprising me.
I've discovered that bullies seldom remember their actions as the years' pass, but the bullied never forget. As for people like Brett and Bart, that night may not stand out in their memory because doing the right thing was normal to them, but I felt they were heroic.
I moved the pie from the oven to a cooling rack. The piping hot steam filled the air with its sweet amaretto fragrance. "Let this cool a few hours before you cut it," I said.
Brett handed me a very cool camouflage bucket hat he got while serving in the US Army, "I want you to have this," he said. I felt honored to accept his gift, so I put it on my head, and we stood together. While Karen took our photo, I was on my tippy-toes to ensure I was taller than Brett. We shared a good laugh about that; then I told my friends I had to get going.
"You're not staying to share the pie with us," Brett questioned?
"The pie is for you, Brett," I replied.
Brett pointed out the obvious, "You sure drove a long way just to make a pie."
"I never did thank you or Bart on that night at Evans," I explained, "And, you're right. One hundred nineteen miles out of my way would be a long way just to make a pie. But, to finally tell a friend in person, 'Thank you for saving my butt when I was in deep trouble,' even if I was almost forty years late - well, that makes the 120th mile well worth the drive.
With the pie cooling on the counter, we said our farewells. I asked Brett, "Can you send a slice of that pie to Bart, and please, tell him I said, 'Thank you!'"