My life changed after I punched a fourteen-year-old kid in the nose—understandably. When I did it, I was a 39 year old father of two, former Air Force, and an airline pilot. Now, after I busted Karl’s nose and cheek bone, I’m 41, an ex-con, and a bartender in a bar at the end of a fishing pier. I used to carry passengers being served drinks at 35,000 feet—now I’m serving the drinks at sea level—on a barrier island off the coast of South Carolina.
If you’ve never been to a bar at the end of a pier, you might think, “That sounds so tropical and relaxing, frozen margaritas, the smell of the ocean, the sea breeze and a guitarist singing some Jimmy Buffett songs.”
That’s not what you’ll find at Thar She Blows. It’s one of those ancient bars, with countless bras dangling from the ceiling, strands of Christmas lights laced between them and a big plastic shark wearing a bikini, perched above the stage. As far as smelling the ocean—not likely on a wooden pier with decades of fish blood and guts soaked into its planks—not to mention stale beer, vomit and Clorox. Feel the breeze? Clothespins are nailed to the bar and tables to hold your tab, so it won’t blow away by the constant wind which tears through the bar (no doors, windows or air-conditioning). The margaritas aren’t frozen, it’s not that kind of crowd—but there’s plenty of beer, Bud, Miller Light and Coors. No guitarist, but always a stupidly-loud band playing those Jimmy Buffett songs. And they’ll also play “Freebird” at least a dozen times, throughout the evening (I’m pretty sure a South Carolina law requires that). Last, you’ll find me, your inattentive, stressed-out bartender, yelling at you, so you can hear me above the howl of the wind and the band.
Billy and I were the bartenders on shift tonight, although his real name isn’t Billy. His name is D’Brickashaw, but he got tired of repeatedly asking the wait staff and bartenders to stop calling him Brick. It all came to a boil one afternoon, as we were stocking the bar, getting ready to open.
One of the other bartenders yelled out, “Hey Brick, can you help me with these cases of Miller—”
“My momma didn’t name me D’Brickashaw so you people could call me Brick,” he yelled back, loud enough for everyone to hear (even above the wind). “From now on, everyone calls me Billy.”
Billy is a local, born and raised across from the island in Nags Inlet. Our local patrons love Billy and he loves them back, but he’s not as friendly with the tourists, who pour into Thar She Blows each evening. While cleaning up after work one evening, I asked Billy why he generally treated the tourists with such little regard.
He stopped what he was doing, sat down on a bar stool and said, “I just don’t like tourists much, cuz ah somethin’ that happened one summer when I was young.”
When he was in high school, a pretty girl on vacation had seen him sitting on the beach. She’d walked over, sat down and introduced herself. Every morning that week, they’d met on the beach and spent the day together. Unfortunately, for D’Brickashaw, he’d been the good-looking star running back at Coastal High School and a local hero. I say unfortunately, because one night a group of local girls ran into him and his pretty, new girlfriend, having hot dogs at Bob’s Corner. The local girls carried on about what an amazing football player ‘The Brick’ was and how fast he could run. (Yes, his high school nickname had been ‘The Brick’ and the irony wasn’t lost on me either.)
After the local girls left, his stunned new girlfriend said, “Wait—you’re not here on vacation? You actually live here—all the time?”
“No, not on the island,” he replied. “I live in Pirate’s Cove—”
“Oh my God,” she interrupted. “That big ugly trailer park out on the highway?” Then she got up and left.
The next morning, she didn’t show up at their spot on the beach. He never got over the judgmental sting of her words. She’d broken his heart.
D’Brickashaw’s story touched me. This big, handsome and confident football star’s spirit had been broken by a nasty girl, with a misguided perception of her elevated status. There are many kinds of bullies—mean kids in school, the assholes who target people with disabilities, predators on social media, and bosses at work. Then there are the special kind, the stealth ones, like nasty girl. The ones whose parents raise and teach them to believe they’re better than others.
I hate, hate, hate what bullies do, and detest that some parents have a twisted” kids will-be kids attitude.”, some even encourage it, while others are unaware. (And yes, I see the irony in this also—considering why I went to jail.)
It’s now 2:00 a.m. and I just got home on my beloved Gibson Island between Myrtle Beach and Charleston in the heart of Pat Conroy’s beloved low country. Clean-up at the bar took longer than normal, a college kid knocked over three pitchers of beer when he rushed up for last call, and then he threw up all over the bar.
I’m sitting on the porch of my oceanfront apartment, looking at a huge, golden-orange moon hanging over an eerie, calm ocean. Its reflection on the water looks like a gilded highway, running form the shore to where the sea meets the sky. And although it’s beautiful, I don’t like it when the sea is this tranquil; it makes me uneasy.
You’ve now assumed I’m wealthy. After all, how many people, who aren’t wealthy, have an oceanfront apartment? In this case, there are a dozen of us. The Sea Breeze is an old, converted oceanfront motel, built back in the 1920s, with white concrete block walls and blue trim. There are twelve units facing the ocean, with parking on the street and an unobstructed view of the beach on the front. The Sea Breeze is an anomaly on Gibson Island, a deviation from what’s normally seen on this upscale residential island. That doesn’t mean there aren’t rentals, there are lots of them, but most of the people who own a home here live in it year-round. The one-of-a-kind Sea Breeze is allowed to remain, because it’s nostalgic, quaint and well maintained, at least on the outside. Inside, the furnishings are ancient. But it’s inexpensive, and the residents are all good people; well, at least eleven of them are. Once you hear my story, you’ll likely hate me. Understandable, in most ways I hate myself. I hate that I hit fourteen-year-old Karl in the face, but I could find no alternative. After you know the whole story, a few of you might try to rationalize that what I did was an impulsive, spontaneous act of sudden anger. My attorney tried to portray it that way in court—but it wasn’t.
I almost always get home from work just after 1:00 a.m. I almost always sit on my porch, drink a beer and think of how things used to be. But I spend most of the time reflecting on the events that led to my hellish behavior, scouring the scorched earth I left behind—searching for anything that might give me the strength to go on. I try to recall every detail and how the whole nasty thing unfolded. Unfolded—I didn’t mean to use that word. That’s the word my attorney used when he first asked me to tell him what happened.
“Tell me how it all unfolded.”
Unfolded implies some organized method of accomplishing a task. A methodical and logical way of doing something, a stepwise process stored in your mind that you recall and apply to a situation. I didn’t unfold shit; I exploded. Based on what had happened, and after I’d quickly considered everything that had led up to it, I weighed alternatives. I couldn’t think of one, considered the fact that he was fourteen, and then slammed my fist into his face.
I don’t know what I’m searching for early each morning, when I replay the story in my mind. If I could turn back time, I know I’d do the same thing. Maybe I’m just hoping to justify what I did, put it in its place, so I can move beyond it all.
I’ve told the story to a very few friends I’ve met, some who are criminals also, broken souls who screwed up like I did. They tell me trudging through the shards of the past won’t help.
Last week, while having a beer with a neighbor I’ve gotten to know, he said, “You can’t change the past, Jason. And relivin’ that painful shit-storm all the time, is gonna destroy any chance for a future.”
What none of them know is that I don’t relive the story out of regret, and it isn’t my penance; it’s my therapy. You see, each time I tell the story, I feel I’m a step closer to accepting responsibility for the damaged life I created for my family and accountability for what I did to Karl. What did I do? I blew up my life for nothing. I was married to my beautiful wife Cheryl for 16 years and had two beautiful girls, Miles was seven and Andrea was nine. After several years as an Air Force Pilot, I got a job with a regional airline and worked my way up to the big leagues and got a job with American Airlines. I had the American dream, but I threw it all away because I couldn’t control my temper.
We lived in a nice neighborhood, but our neighborhood, like any other, had a bully named Karl. He was larger than the other kids and picked on Miles. I had also seen him pick on other children, mostly girls, but some boys smaller than him. I talked with other neighbors and we tried talking to his parents who thought their boy could do no wrong.
It all ended, for me at least, the day I came home from a long flight. Some friends and I had a few at the airport bar and they dropped me off at home. I looked across the street and saw Karl punching a small boy who he towered over continually in the face. Alcohol makes me lose my inhibitions, so by this time I was fed up. I went across the street to break up the fight. Karl tried to punch me, and I lost it. I punched him right in the face and broke his nose.
I’ll never forget the faces of Cheryl and the girls as they carted me away in the police car. Cheryl tried to stand by me at the trial, but it was all too much for her and she had the girls to think of. She divorced me, left Dallas and moved to Terrell an hour or so away where no one knew her.
Why did I hit Karl? Why would a grown man punch a fourteen-year-old boy? Alcohol was to blame, sure but mostly it was just me and my temper. I would do anything f I could only go back and call 911 on my cell phone instead of intervening.
I felt a spark of hope today, a tiny measure of redemption. Sometimes it comes when you least expect it. On my way to work, I witnessed a hero in action, a woman engaged in a selfless act of mercy.
I was walking toward the bar at the end of the pier, and saw a crowd looking over the railing into the ocean. I stopped to see what had captured everyone’s attention, looked over the rail and saw a brown pelican with its wing tangled up in a fisherman’s line. The fisherman had cut the line, but he’d been too late, it was already securely cinched around the pelican’s wing. The unfortunate bird tried over and over again to fly, but the fishing weights at the end of the line held it down—kept it from raising up out of the water. All of us stared at the helpless bird and made comments about its horrible plight—but no one knew how to help.
Suddenly a woman climbed up on the pier railing and demanded that everyone reel in their lines. She took a knife from a fisherman and dove, more than 25 feet, into the sea. She swam as close as she could to the poor pelican, then rode the swells beside the bird and studied the fishing line. She looked at how the line was wrapped around the bird’s wing and where it went down into the water. Then she waited…waited for the right moment, and when it came, she lunged close and cut the line where it disappeared into the ocean. Freed from the weights, the pelican pecked and pulled the line loose, then flew away. As we cheered, the woman swam to shore and quickly walked down the beach all alone. She didn’t look back and didn’t respond to the yells of thanks from all of us on the pier. Her sole purpose had been to help and to save the bird.
Why did her act of kindness give me a slight glimmer of hope that I’d someday be able to put things in place? I’d done what I did, because I’d also wanted to help. My heart had been in the right place. But perhaps just like the pelican who seemed as if he was entwined in a hopeless plight, I can cut the weights of my own making and redeem myself…one step at a time.
Daniel Norman received his BFA from the University of Georgia. Previously, he was a senior executive at AT&T Mobility. He is a past member of the board of the Florida Literacy Coalition.