The gladiators battled, a fierce fight to the death. The imaginary crowd cheered us on.
The gladiators battled, a fierce fight to the death. The imaginary crowd cheered us on. Randy used a garbage can lid as a shield and wielded a wooden sword made from an old lettuce crate. I was armed with a volleyball net and a pitchfork. We circled each other, feinting and stabbing. I twirled the net just the way I had seen the gladiators do it in Spartacus. The film starring Kirk Douglas inflamed our warrior spirits, so we enacted all the battle scenes. “I’m Spartacus!”
Like most childhood tussles, this one started out benign, more posturing than pain, until Randy smacked my arm with the wooden sword. That pissed me off. So, I tried to stab his bare feet with the pitchfork. He hit me again with the sword and banged the garbage can lid into my shoulder. I whipped the volleyball net. Randy dropped his shield and grabbed the netting—big mistake. I raced around my younger brother a couple of times, entangling him in the net like a trapped fish. Then I walked over and punched him in the face. A flash. In my peripheral vision, I saw a blur of flesh, knees pumping, arms swinging, and a body streaking toward me. It was my father, no shirt, cut-off denim shorts, and slip-on cloth sneakers, racing across the field. He grabbed me, yanked the pitchfork away, and slammed it to the ground. He picked me up with one hand, splayed me over his knee, and spanked my ass. I was twelve years old and big for my age, but my father was strong. He swung from ropes tied to the oak tree, jumped out of the hayloft, rode horses bareback and taught us how to shoot a bow and arrow. My father was the real Spartacus. Bent over his knee, my hair brushing the dirt, Dad whacked my behind three times, then plopped me on the ground.
“Don't ever hit your brother in the face,” Dad said, pointing a finger. “You can wrestle him, sit on him, throw him in the dirt, but you do not punch your brother in the face. Do you understand?”
“Do you understand?”
“Yes,” I whispered.
I sat there, more humiliated than hurt. I considered myself a grown man, but my father had treated me like a little child. Randy gathered up the weapons, smiled at me over his shoulder, and followed Dad back to the barn.
For the rest of the afternoon, I avoided going to the house. I didn’t want to see my father. I was ashamed. I hung out in the field with our two horses, Gypsy and Stormy and Cindy, our ancient donkey. I found comfort in their smell. The scent, the dusty sweetness of a horse’s hide, is one of God’s gifts to humanity. I am not sure how long I was out there, but I noticed the temperature dropped. Leaves fluttered. I smelled rain. I waved my arms, driving the two horses into the barn. Cindy hobbled along behind them. I slammed the barn door shut and jogged towards the house.
My father stood at the top of the driveway. He was still shirtless, hands on his hips, studying the storm. I tried to avoid him by going behind the garage, but he waved me over. I stood beside him, and we watched flashes of light explode inside the gray-green clouds tumbling in from the Northwest.
“It’s going to be big but won’t last long,” he said. The rumble of thunder washed over us. Dad patted my back, “Come on, let’s go.” He trotted away, but instead of going to the house, he veered over to the sycamore that loomed over our driveway. It was massive, with thick branches and peeling bark. Dad grabbed the lowest limb, threw his leg up, and started climbing. I wasn't sure what to do, so I followed him. The first raindrops pelted us. The tree swayed as we climbed higher and higher until the branches became thin and would no longer support our weight.
“Hold on,” Dad grinned. “Hold on tight.”
I planted my feet in the crook, where a limb grew out of the trunk. I grabbed two branches above my head just as the tree bent sideways. Leaves ripped off and blew away. Cold rain slashed us. A ribbon of lightning shot down and struck our neighbor’s yard, a flashbulb of white.
“Here we go!” Dad yelled. The tree whipped back and forth. A streak of lightning, the air crackled, and an electric charge enveloped us. There was a metallic taste on my tongue. My scalp tingled. I yelled, “Wow! Oh, my God, wow!” We were inside the storm. Another crash of thunder. I threw back my head and howled. I no longer thought of us as humans. My father and I were elements, molecules of water, particles of ice, positive and negative ions colliding and exploding into thunder carried on the wind.
The storm didn't last long, less than five minutes. The earth was soaked, and the field puddled with rain. Rivulets of water slinked down our driveway, pushing pebbles into the grass. Out of breath, hair plastered to our scalps, my father and I looked at each other and laughed. Dad said, “That was fun.” We started back down. The descent was precarious because the sycamore bark was slick, so we moved cautiously. Dad swung out of the tree, landing with a splash. I hung on the limb for a moment and then dropped back down to earth.