Back in the early 80’s, when I was a student living in San Jose, my friend Sue, my little brother Brian and I all ventured out to Marriott’s Great America amusement park in Santa Clara. Numerous rides were ridden, various junk food eaten, and, somewhat exhausted by mid afternoon — yet far from ready to go home — we settled in at one of the many entertainment shows that were scattered around the park.
This one involved birds, many different species, from chattering Macaws to strutting Peacocks to Barn Owls; I truly can’t remember them all. And I don’t really remember what species the one bird was who entertained us by doing tricks such as a fly-by where he deftly snatched something like a breadstick out of the bird-trainer’s hand. But I do remember he was a cute bird, medium-sized, no distinctive markings, but very cheerful and outgoing; definitely a crowd favorite.
The bird whizzed by the trainer one last time and headed skyward, then suddenly he let out a loud and piercing cry, then quickly u-turned and dove back down toward the trainer and the safety of his enclosure. The crowd looked up to see a hawk menacingly circling above.
“Whoa,” Sue exclaimed, “that bird was almost a goner!”
A wave of sadness and compassion swept over me temporarily and I choked back tears. This playful, confident and talented bird had suddenly displayed a vulnerability and understandable fear that reminded me of something from my childhood, but couldn’t place at the time.
Until later. It wasn’t something that had happened directly to me, but instead something that I had witnessed. It was something that had kind of broken my heart at the time.
It was around the summer of 1969, on a weekend visit to my Grandparents’ house in Brentwood, a then-sleepy little town in Northern California. A couple cousins and I were playing with a group of neighborhood kids we’d befriended. Although I don’t remember much about them, I do remember one sandy-haired boy named Rusty who was about my age. We were playing lawn games of some sort, tag, hide-and-seek, etc. My Grandma and another older lady were sitting in lawn chairs nearby. Rusty stood out, as he led us in the games, and focused on safety and playing fair. He seemed like a good boy, and very different from some of the hellions I tolerated in my own neighborhood on Minaker Drive in Antioch.
I think it was during one of the hide-and-seek sessions when all of a sudden Rusty, looking very disturbed, came running out from behind a group of houses, and made his way toward the adults. It took only a split second for us to realize the source of Rusty’s panic: a couple of older boys who apparently had some vendetta against him, were chasing him, planning to do him harm.
The bullies, seeing our group plus some adults present, quickly did an about-face and went back to wherever they came from.
I remember Rusty’s younger sister explaining to me that those boys were the neighborhood bullies. We all managed to shrug it off and continue our playing, but about 30 minutes later, Rusty cried out in tearful panic, “Maggie,” who was my grandma, and ran toward her tearfully. Apparently the bullies were lurking nearby and had almost pulled Rusty away from us to beat him up. They were like hawks.
“You boys get out of here now, just go on home!” My grandmother shouted. It was a side to her I had never witnessed. The bullies left, a combination of scowls and mischief crossing their faces.
Having dealt with my own bullies back home, I could identify somewhat with Rusty’s plight. But I was a shy, vulnerable child who at the time lacked the confidence, gregariousness and — most of all — leadership qualities that Rusty possessed within our small group. To witness him take a complete 180 into such a vulnerable and uninhibited state was quite unsettling, and it kind of broke my heart.
That was the last I ever saw of Rusty. I have often wondered about him, and how many more times he may have had to endure the threats and possible abuse of those older boys. Perhaps Rusty and his family moved from that area, which would not have been a bad thing.
It’s strange how certain events can transport you back in time. There have been numerous examples in my lifetime of strong people showing heartbreaking vulnerability, and more delicate beings showing immense strength and power.
My belief in karma tells me that Rusty, in spite of any adversities in his young life, went on to bigger and better things, growing up to be a good man; a man brave enough to venture out and be a confident leader, yet humble enough to ask for help or fly to safety when necessary.