The first time I heard, “Hey, Buzzard!” I was 12. I didn’t turn around. Then the boy who was talking to me – I’ll call him Gary – got serious. With a small crowd around him, he began yelling, flapping his arms wildly in the air, and making loud “caw, caw, caw” sounds. His friends, in the throes of hysterical laughter, didn’t really need an explanation but got one anyway: “I call her ‘Buzzard’ because she’s so ugly and her nose is so big.”
My nose was way ahead of the rest of my face. In fact, my whole body was just one adolescent disappointment that summer. My hair had the consistency of steel wool and would puff out like a blow fish as soon as the humidity raised half a percent. I was taller than anyone on my block (including a few short, Italian fathers). I kept forgetting that my feet had now reached size 10 almost overnight, and I tripped a lot.
Puberty had not come gunning for Gary the way it had for me. He was blonde, with perfect symmetry to his face. As the kingpin of our neighborhood, whatever he said garnered plenty of nods and laughs, and his delivery was effortless. As far as I know, I was his only prey that summer and the two that followed. My humiliation, always close to the surface, didn’t faze him. Just the opposite. The few times I cried only fueled him. Twice he spit at me but missed.
It was the early 60s, and childhood contained no virtual oasis anywhere, especially in the summers. Unless it rained, you played outside all day, and the hand you were dealt was a three-block radius of your house, maybe a total of 50 kids. Your mother, if she had a car, didn’t drive you to play dates. Your parents didn’t vet playmates. The unwritten manifesto was that your mother and father had the foresight to buy a home in the bucolic suburbs, a far cry from the mean streets of the city where they had come of age. They got points for providing you with trees, good schools, and fresh air. The rest was kind of up to you.
My family listened to me as I complained once in a while about my tormentor. Gary was the topic of dinner conversation only rarely, though. As a child, my mother had watched her family struggle through the Great Depression, where she’d learned the value of hard work but fought feelings that at any moment, all our security would be whisked away. My father spent most of his childhood as an orphan. In WWII he fought in the Battle of Saipan. They had finished their childhoods and had no intention of being in charge of mine. Their message was loving and practical and always the same: “Sometimes life is hard. Be a good person. Figure it out.”
As I watched my own kids grow up, having been Buzzard for a few summers did me some favors. It kept me from lunging at two boys in a preschool parking lot the morning I overheard them conspiring against my son because they didn’t like his freckles. It stopped me from calling the mother of a girl on the school bus who had taunted my child about an unfortunate wardrobe choice. I never thought I could fix it for my kids. Gary was the collateral damage of my own childhood, and I was sure there were scores of Garys in our town, too. I could only arm them with some inside strength to keep it together if someone ever called them names. Or made fun of the way they looked. Or spit. The rest was sort of up to them. Those words on summer days so long ago kept coming at me: “Sometimes life is hard. Be a good person. Figure it out.”
Last year I saw Gary at a funeral in my hometown. He was easy to spot in the crowded room – tall and still handsome, with his blonde hair now gray. I’ve been privy for years to some of the details of what has become of him. (Sometimes life is hard.) I’ve tried not to give an inch to my tendency to keep score when I think of our respective lives then and now. (Be a good person.) I caught his eye and smiled. He recognized me, and we made small talk about the old neighborhood. He told me he sells insurance. He didn’t ask what I did. And if I thought for a moment he remembered his treatment of me when we were kids, I might have brought it up, just to see what his memories were.
I remember that at 12 I didn’t want to treat people like that, and I didn’t want to end up like him.