Several weeks after the beginning of my tenth grade school year (the year after last contact with Philip the psycho), I met this kid on the bus named Nico. Picture a guy with black hair and a slight muscular build, a guy who looked and carried himself like his idle Jean Claude Van Damme. Like me, Nico had serious trouble fitting in. We were like Dumb & Dumber, only “Socially Impaired & Socially Impaired-er.” Me, I was Socially Impaired. :-)
Yes, if you can believe it, Nico was even more of an oddball than I was. He would stand out at the bus stop, and just before the bus arrived, would do roundhouse kicks to show every less cool kid on our bus just how much more cool he was than they were (our bus was full of band nerds, so that pretty much put us losers at the top of the list).
Nico could dress up to look like Van Damme, but normally, he didn’t. When he didn’t, things got weird. Picture a guy with tan-ish/brown, hi-watering slack pants, flashy blue and white tennis shoes, and a white and yellow Camel's shirt with the sleeves cutting off at the forearms. That was Nico. If the shirt had sleeves, he would roll them up all the way to his shoulders. This made any shirt he was wearing look ridiculous, like some puffed sleeves dress from Amsterdam. See what I'm saying—an oddball of epic proportions.
But Nico was my best friend. We watched Bloodsport I don't know how many times and thought that maybe, just maybe, we too could one day be good enough to compete in the Kumitae. We had no plans to, but I wouldn't have put it past us to think that. We spent our time watching cable, training in the garage dojo, and going to malls and arcades looking for chicks.
We didn't know anything about Kung Fu other than what we picked up in movies, but we thought we were grade-A bad-asses. Nico was more muscularly developed than I was, and he looked older (because he failed several grades and actually was). I was just getting into weightlifting, but had nothing to show for it as of yet. I was always “the smart one.” After two years of training, I had him beat physically, but I'll save my gloating for another time.
Nico went around strutting his stuff by flexing and doing a full splits on a whim. He really and truly believed that people were as interested as he was in spin-kicks and pretending to be a great fighter. We were once walking down a hallway to third period class when he jumped into a split and nearly caused everyone walking behind us to trip. This was after walking along slowly and getting everyone else behind him steaming with anger.
I said, “Nico, you're really pissing these people off. They want you to speed up.” “Big deal. I want them to slow down.” he replied. We thought we were doing alright until Tray Van Pelt, the 400 pound-benching captain of the football team decided he'd tell us to move or else. Would it surprise you to hear that we moved like he told us to? We did.
Nico and I were “humble” enough to admit that there were a few guys around who could hand us our asses in fighting and athletics. By “few” we meant maybe two or three or perhaps five, but at the end of that school year, the list would be expanded to include at least twenty-five, and possibly up to fifty.
We found it fun and easy to lay into the old Emerson punching bag I had hanging in dad's garage. We were damn tough with each other. That estimation of toughness dropped several orders of magnitude when Nico got into a not-so-successful fight with a guy named Andy McGee in the weight room--so much for meditative training and focusing Chi to increase punching power! Nico got a Texas-sized boot to the head after doing well for the first minute of the match and then went down with accompanying “oohs” and “ahhhs” from onlookers.
My turn soon came. I was telling off a guy named Wesley, and he reciprocated. Things escalated (over nothing more than a glance from him I didn’t like), and we jumped up at the same time and left-handed each other really hard in the face. When neither of us decided we preferred the shock of being walloped in the jaw again, noticing that no one saw the encounter, we both sat back down like nothing had happened, and that was the end of it. I got more of the same in twelfth grade, but that's a story for another time.
So Nico meets a girl named Tammie. She's nice, but like us, she's whacky and with the social skills of an orangutan. She was sweet, but had the most protruding, triangular waste and thighs I’d ever seen. Despite her weight, he carries her around to show off the fact that he’s strong and that he loves her, and the two get into goofy Shakespearian routines and make even bigger scenes with their dynamic dorkdom—complete with fake Australian accents and all the melodrama that could be mustered.
And Nico never did learn his lesson—go around doing spin-kicks and air punches and Van Damme grunts and you're only going to get the attention of other guys looking to throw spin-kicks and punches and grunt of their own. So Nico takes his beloved around, sets her down, and starts sparring with her right near the school trophy cases of Douglas Macarthur High School. “heeyah,” “heeyah,” etc. On and on it went. Everyone just watched in unbelief. Followed by the shame of being colossal fools (I seemed to be the only one feeling it, but I felt enough of it for the three of us) was the fact that I was seen with them. I tried not to be seen with them, but they were my friends and we did hang out, and the crowd recognized me anyway. “Surely thou also art one of them.” (Matthew 26:73)
This happened many times. One notable time, Nico gets racked in the nuts so hard by Tammie that he just about cries. So hurt was he that when I went to initiate our secret handshake with a “laters, bro,” he said, “I'm hurt. Just go.” What he should have been hurt about was the fact that he was low enough to put himself on fighting level with a female – and then lose – not to mention his making a complete ass of himself and getting what he deserved for horseplay and putting on a most pitiable public scene.
Nico wasn't all he claimed to be. I had accepted that. But Nico goes out and does something stupider than ever. When his spin-kicks and realistic-sounding “heeyahs” become too ordinary, he brings his nunchucks to school. He shows them off (and how he can't use them) and some kid squeals on him. He gets arrested for bringing a weapon on school property and is expelled from school, narrowly avoiding jail.
Nico could have reregistered at a new school and started over. He could have, but he didn't. So what did Nico do? He went fulltime with his job in construction. He never made more than $700 per month, but he got himself a cheap apartment and moved out for a life of his own.
Years down the road, he moved to Dallas and became a cashier for a Mexican restaurant, had three kids, and struggled to survive in a marriage that I thought was the one thing in his life that he had going for him. Last I heard from him was in 1998 when he stayed with my wife and I while I was minister for the Hubbard Church of Christ.
It was through hanging with Nico that I learned the value of following through. Life is all about learning how insufficient you are and how little you know. It's easy to spar-fight with someone and think you're a bad-ass. It's easy to feel confident and let it go to your head, but it's not easy to find out that you suck and then to keep going. It takes something to learn that you “ain't all that” and then to train with grim determination to make yourself into something good. When the heat is on, how tough are you? “If thou faint in the day of adversity, thy strength is small.” (Proverbs 24:10) Even the Bible can hit the nail on the head a time or two.
The idiot losers Nico and I admired and tried to identify with weren't accomplished at all. They weren't great fighters or heroes, and neither were we. If we found ourselves in a war-zone with bullets flying, we’d have screamed like spoiled rich girls who didn't get their way and would have hid our asses. It wouldn’t be some bum who can threaten to beat up other kids who would save the day, but a trained soldier with a buzz-cut who would be the one to step up and risk life and limb to take control of the situation. Realizing that real courage was something that took character-building and work and tenacity was a big step for me. It took me somewhere. This was a thing I developed, but I don’t think Nico did.
I was (and am) a million miles from perfect. I’m still not even decent and am barely above being a blight on society myself. I’m not singing my own praises, but I did finish high school (though I got into my fair share of trouble in the process). I went to college and seminary and graduated with honors from seminary. Nico bought a 1986 V6 Firebird and stuffed a wife into it and three kids in the back and drove them across the state of Texas living off of the good graces of others, having to rely almost totally on charity just to keep a roof over their heads. I bought them groceries and lent them money, as did my mother, and we put them up for a few days.
Nico gave up. He never had anything. He never did anything. He didn't because no one was there to make him. Those same parents who said, “Don't worry about school. Just get a job and start your life,” they washed their hands of him. Now he was society's problem. Maybe my old buddy is out there somewhere doing way better than I am (wouldn't require much), and I do hope so. But if he's still getting help, it wouldn't surprise me.
Doesn't it depress the hell out of you to think about how in a world of failure, so many of us are set up for failure?