Look a cow in the eye. Smack a gangster in the face.

“I swallowed the big ball in my throat, gritted my teeth and stared that big, ugly smoke breathing monster right in his shining green eyes. We had a stare down, both determined not to look away.”

But first…

I’m in a really strange place in life right now; one of those “more questions than answers” phases.  Things used to seem simpler, or maybe life was less complicated, or at the very least, life was just as complicated but easier to deal with. Whatever. For the first time in a long, long time I am looking at the future, well at least my future, and I feel like I am staring into a thick, cloudy darkness with a big, ugly monster waiting within it. I think that big, ugly monster might be called “the unknown”, and it’s pretty scary.

I guess I kind of fear it.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. Just stating. It takes a lot for me to admit I’m scared. As a matter of fact, I rarely do. I brag that the only thing in life I’m scared of is sharks. But that’s not altogether true. So yeah, I’ll admit that that big, ugly, scary monster is frightening. Maybe the most frightening part about it is its anonymity and mystery. Yep, now that I think of it, I’m pretty sure that’s what makes the monster bigger and scarier, at least in my mind. I’m not sure exactly how I landed up in this place, standing in front of this monster’s cloudy lair, but I do know where I’ve come from, and the journey I’ve been on the last few years. That helps.

So this monster, if I can call it that, has been on my mind a lot lately. It won’t go away. I wouldn’t say it haunts me, but I’m always aware of its presence, and it has been known, in the past few weeks, to keep me up at night. Stupid monster. I know I’ll defeat it. But I guess I have to actually see it before I can do that. I mean, I can’t hardly slay a monster I can’t even see, which brings me back to the complexity of this particular unidentified monster, also known as “the unknown”. Sigh. And then the other day I wrote a blog about gangsters, which reminded me of a story that reminds me of another story…

When I was working on the streets every day in downtown Cape Town, I would often get myself into questionable situations, but manage to make it out alive, and usually even unscratched. More simply put, I would see something I didn’t agree with, typically involving the kids I worked with, I would jump in without thinking and do something stupid like snatch a police officer’s gun out of his hands, and then somehow I would not get shot or beat up or arrested. Some of my friends say it was God’s protection over me, some say I was just really lucky, and a few others say I am a strange alien species from a rare star; we all have our opinions. Anyways! One of those “questionable moments” involved a gangster, who I will call Killer for the sake of this story.

I don’t like labeling people, but if I were the type to do so, I would say this fake name I am giving Killer is a colossal understatement. I hate to say it, but he was pretty much evil incarnated. He was in jail most of the time, which we were all cool with, but when he was on the outside you could literally feel his presence in the atmosphere of town. He would viciously rob people, rape the younger boys to prove his dominance, fight someone over nothing, and stab someone over absolutely nothing. I am rarely scared, though you now know it might only be on the outside, but when he was around my insides trembled a bit.

This particular day, of this particular situation, Killer walked up to me and a lady friend, whilst we were chatting with a group of younger kids. He did his normal snarling and growling at the kids. I said, “Sup.” He said, “Sup.” Then he started looking my lady friend up and down, licking his lips like a dog in heat. It was a disgusting display of uncontrolled lust. She was clearly uncomfortable. He made a vulgar, inappropriate comment to her. I immediately told him to never speak to a lady like that in front of me, or at all for that matter. Surprisingly enough, Killer put his hand on his chest and said, “I’m sorry Ryan. You’re right.” We were all a bit surprised at his willingness to cooperate.

We continued to chat, the children perceptibly nervous of Killer’s presence. And then it happened, the animalistic action that would spark some kind of animalistic instinct in me. Killer smiled slyly, started speaking in the “dodgy-guy-trying-to-pick-up-a-girl-in-a-club” tone, and he put his arm around my lady friend. But his hand didn’t just stop and rest on her shoulder, or hang off the side even. Oh no. His hand continued around to her front, moving towards her chest, and he took a big squeeze of one of her boobs. Without thinking I smacked him across the face as hard as I could. Yes, I smacked him. Not punched, not backhanded, I smacked him, and hard! And then time stood still for moments that felt like eternity.

Killer looked down and held his face in shock.

The girl quickly pulled away from him.

The kids all stood, mouths wide open with their chins on the ground, eyes as round as saucers.

And I began to realize I was about to finally feel what it felt like to have a knife stuck through my face. And then I thought of my FBI agent, great uncle, who we called Unc.

It was always cool to go on vacation with Unc because he would teach me cool things like how to put a worm on a hook, or how to shoot guns, or how to sneak up on an enemy without making a sound, and all sorts of other awesome “boy stuff” like that. Plus, he was a freaking FBI agent! That alone is pretty cool for a kid. So, most of my childhood we would to always go for vacation to some family-owned land called Seven Springs, way down in Florida. There was all sorts of crazy stuff to do there. Canoeing, hiking, getting chased by wild boar, chasing armadillo, getting chased by alligators, building forts, playing harmonica, catching wild horses, and so forth and so on. There was also this big herd of Spanish bulls; or at least that’s what I’ll call them, not being an expert in livestock.

They had big, long horns that stood straight up, they were fast as lightening, their eyes shone red, and they breathed smoke out their huge, round nostrils; or at least, so it seemed to a teeny five-year-old boy. I was terrified of those things! I hated to walk past them. I remember one night in particular when Unc and I walked through the darkness of their field. He was probably telling me remarkable stories as we walked, and I was probably all-ears. All of the sudden, not so far from us, I heard growl of one of the bulls. Yeah, they growled, not mooed. My heart starting pounding out of my five-year-old chest, I breathed heavier and my mouth got dry. I looked out, and there they stood, the whole herd of them, the scary, smoke breathing bulls, all with the moonlight reflecting in their normally red eyes, making them glow bright green.

I reached my hands up to Unc, “Pick me up! Pick me up!!”

He looked down at me, “Are you scared?”

You would think, with me practically climbing up his leg like a rabid squirrel in absolute panic, that that would be a stupid question to ask, but with hindsight I realize it was more of the rhetorical nature.

Unc refused to pick me up, “Don’t ever let them see your fear. They will use it against you.”

Oh, thanks Unc! Thanks a lot! Do you think my tiny little body can hide or hold this in?!?!?!, I thought. I became more frantic. I started to cry. I pleaded with Unc to pick me up. He lovingly refused, but remained absolutely calm. The bulls started pawing the ground, and the dust rose in the night air. I think I had a heart attack and then a stroke. But eventually, with Unc refusing and refusing to ease my fear, but encouraging me to get control of it on my own…I did. I was still scared, but it was more controlled. Then, and only then, he picked me up and said, “Come on.” I wished his “come on” meant we were going back to the cabin, but I noticed we were indeed walking towards the very creatures that had caused my panic attack.

Unc carried me towards the cows, “If they see your fear they will charge. You’ve gotta look them in the eyes and show them you are not scared, even if you are. Don’t let them see your fear.”

Thanks Unc! Easier said than done! You’re not a little five-year-old midget, AND you’re probably packing heat and could easily bust a cap in a bull in a heartbeat!

As we approached the biggest, ugliest, baddest one, their apparent leader and alpha bull, I suddenly felt a wave of calm come over my body. He snorted and blew smoke in my face. Unc held me at eye level with him. I swallowed the big ball in my throat, gritted my teeth and stared that big, ugly smoke breathing monster right in his shining green eyes. We had a stare down, both determined not to look away. And finally, after a few long moments, the bull looked away, bowed down admitting defeat, and started eating grass. Unc put me down, and we walked back to the cabin, me with my shoulders about three inches higher than before, and a lifetime’s worth of wisdom suddenly resting on them…

Then I smacked Killer. The sound of my hand against Killer’s face still rang in the air. Everyone waited to see what would happen next. And then, I remembered Unc, and the bulls. I swallowed the ball in my throat, gritted my teeth, took a step closer, put my finger in Killers face, stared him straight in his glowing green eyes and said, “I told you not to disrespect a lady!” At that point, most of the kids almost fell over in absolute and utter shock. I swallowed again. Killer look down, rubbed his face, and then looked back up with an ashamed look on his face, “I’m sorry Ryan.”

WHAT?!?!?!?!?!?!??!?!?!?!!!!!!

At that point, the kids’ eyes literally popped out from shock. I did not, however, have the privilege of showing too much appreciation in that moment. I had to keep it going, remain tough, “You don’t need to apologize to me!” I pointed at my lady friend. Killer turned to her, bowed his head and said, “I’m sorry.” She accepted, and he walked away quietly. As soon as he was out of sight we all let out the breath we had been holding for what felt like years. Now, I’m not saying I did the “right” thing, and I’m not condoning violence, but I did what I did, and it turned out ok. I stood up to big, bad Killer and showed him that it’s not ok just to walk all over everybody, and for whatever reason, he accepted it. Just like when I showed the big, bad bull I’m not to be messed with, and for whatever reason, he acknowledged it.

And that’s why the place I am in now reminds me of those instances. I know I’ll be ok. I may have a big, scary monster (size unknown) waiting just on the other side of these thick, dark clouds. It may feel more complicated than before, and, to be honest, I would probably rather be up against a bull or a gangster, because that is what I “know”. But knowing is not necessarily half the battle when your battling the monster called “the unknown”. So I will push through the clouds, climb up the body of the big, ugly monster, and look it straight in the eyes, telling it I refuse to be scared of it. I’ve dealt with the likes of monsters before! I’ve looked cows in the eyes, and smacked gangsters in the face.

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