A story from Dan’s childhood…
This post is one I’m recycling from an old blog of mine (now defunct), but it’s received a little critical acclaim, so I thought you might enjoy reading it.
It was a Thursday night in the fall of 1982; I was fourteen years old. I remember the day of the week because in our soccer league, Thursday nights were game nights. My father was our coach, and on this night we’d just lost to a bigger, more skilled team. After the loss I was walking back to the parking lot with my teammates (dad was trailing far behind, talking with some of the other parents) when somebody from our team must’ve said something to some members of the other team about how hard they sucked or how big their mommas were. The three largest guys on their team were pretty sure I’d said it and wanted to show me how much they didn’t appreciate it. As I turned to see what was going on (at this point I had no clue), I saw the three (much) larger kids coming my way.
At the time I stood about 5′10″ and was pretty skinny. But I had a big mouth, and it sometimes got me into more trouble than my 160 pound body could get me out of. And while I hadn’t said anything to these guys, I wasn’t planning on backing down.
The three kids stopped right in front of me, all firing insults at me at the same time. I was firing back as I could. When they started telling me how much of my ass they were going to kick (all of it, if I recall), I knew things were way out of hand, I was outmatched, and that I was probably gonna end up with my dick in the dirt.
We had a kid on our team named Koson. Koson was a scrawny kid. He stood about 5′6″ and may have weighed 100 pounds if he was dipped in syrup. He had toothpicks for arms, a sapling’s branches for legs. He had hair like Jimi Hendrix; not quite an afro, but not quite tamed, making his head look unusually large on his skinny little frame. His family had recently come over to the United States from South Korea for their shot at the American Dream. They were dirt poor, but the family worked together to try to make it. They worked hard. The perimeter of the backyard at Koson’s house was wrapped in chicken wire, while the hand-tilled dirt inside it was filled with rows of beans, carrots, onions, tomatoes and any other plants that could grow food. The six or so kids, working under the stern direction of their mother, gardened that backyard hard. If you drove by on a dry summer day you’d see the dust of worked soil rising above the roof line of the house like smoke from a fire. If you got closer you could hear Koson’s mother giving high-pitched, staccato commands to her children working in the garden.
Koson loved soccer. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was probably a financial hardship for the family just paying the dues for him to play in our league. Koson playing soccer on our team likely meant somebody in his family had to miss a few meals to be able to pay for it. And to make matters worse, the family didn’t own a car, so Koson’s only means of getting to and from practices and games was to ride his bicycle. Sometimes that meant an eight or nine mile ride, one way. When my father realized this we found out where he lived (it was only a mile from our house) and started driving him to and from team activities.
Having only recently come to America he spoke very little English, so the time I spent with him, bouncing around in the back of my dad’s truck riding to and from games, tended to be quiet. But despite discussions so short you could count the syllables on two hands, you could just tell he had a good heart and the fun-loving spirit of any other kid his age. Except that I was wrong about his heart. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
As I stood in front of those three kids who were describing the beating they were going to put down on me, I was assessing who was likely to take the first swing, and putting my feet in a position to brace myself for the blow and return a few punches. Out of nowhere, Koson, the skinny kid who spoke almost no English, who hardly knew anybody outside of his immediate family, living in an unfamiliar country, came flying in from my left and put himself between me and these three (did I mention larger?) kids. Koson was going to try to protect me? If each of these three would-be attackers outweighed me by thirty pounds, they outweighed Koson by almost 90. Each. Surely they’d flick him aside like a booger on their way to pounding my ass.
But before anyone could get out another word, Koson screamed at these three in his busted-up English: “He say NOTHING! YOU DO NOTHING!” Everyone froze. This was a development neither I nor my ass-kickers-to-be were prepared for. And though his back was to me, I could still see a sliver of Koson’s face. His eyes were red with hostility and bulging from their sockets. He looked fucking crazy. Like he could kill somebody. In an instant, the balance of the situation had shifted; instead of moving in to finish us off, all three of the other kids were taking a step back.
I stood dumbfounded. Just a few seconds before, the faces of each of these three kids shown the barely focused rage of an angry mob, coupled with a mob’s capacity for reason. And violence. Now, their ashen faces showed fear. This bony kid, outnumbered and possibly outweighed by 400 pounds, was now stepping toward those three kids. Now he was the angry one. Now they were the ones worrying. Now they were trying to figure out how they’d defend themselves. And he was doing it for a friendship so newly minted that coin hadn’t even cooled.
In the back of my dad’s truck on the ride home, I excitedly asked Koson if he knew karate or kung fu, and why he jumped into the middle of that situation, but the language barrier between us was just too big. I could tell he was interested in talking, but my questions weren’t making sense to him and I couldn’t make heads or tails of his answers. We both fell silent, disappointed that we couldn’t talk about this incredible turn of events we’d just shared. We dropped him off at his home and told him we’d see him again the next week.
I don’t remember exactly how the rest of the season played out, except that we won more games than we lost, and Koson and I had forged a brief friendship and trust in the crucible that was that Thursday night. And though we only lived a mile apart, dividing lines between neighboring school districts ran along a road that separated our homes, and by the next year we were both in high school, playing for our respective school’s soccer teams. As was usually the case with friends made during the course of a soccer season, like bits of dust from a garden on a windy day, coming together to swirl briefly in a frenetic spiral then separating and flying far afield, Koson and I never reconnected after that season. We would occasionally drive by his house on the way to other destinations, blowing our horn and waving as we passed, never sure if he saw us or if he was even home.
Some time went by, and in my senior year of high school I’d learned that Koson didn’t have such a good heart after all. A congenital defect that had been hidden when he was a child was getting the better of him as he entered manhood. One day that defect became more than Koson could scare away with his bravery; his heart failed, he went into cardiac arrest and he died. I’m not sure if he even made it to his eighteenth birthday. Koson’s American Dream was over.
The little man with the heart of a lion was gone.
In the small handfuls of memories I have stuffed deep into my mind’s pockets, the ten or twenty seconds of the day when Koson leaped between me and those three assholes stand out clearly. And while I didn’t immediately grasp the full weight and meaning of that experience, as the years passed I became aware of the important lessons Koson taught me that day. It just took me awhile to learn them. What I learned was:
You stand up for your friends, no matter the odds. Friends take care of friends. And the odds of coming through a winner (or just alive) are always better when there’s more than one of you. Even if the situation is bleak and you’re probably going to get your asses handed to you, at least you’ll be together, holding what’s left of your asses.
Some days, you have to be willing to take things all the way. I never found out whether Koson could have pummeled those three kids (and thankfully for them, neither did they). But on that day, at that moment, everyone who saw what happened was sure of one thing: Koson was willing to find out. I believe it was his willingness to take things all the way that scared the shit out of those other kids. They were willing to fight when they knew they’d win. When they realized that in a few minutes they may be the ones found bleeding on the ground, they became pretty interested in parting company. Quickly. Koson didn’t care about the odds or the sizes of the other kids. He knew he had a friend in danger and he was going to take things all the way for me if he had to.
Being willing to go all the way doesn’t mean taking every situation to the wall, every time. But once in awhile you’ve got to be willing to put love, God, family, money, safety, pride or happiness (or all of ‘em) on the line if you’re gonna come out the other side in one piece.
Obstacles fall away under conviction. You’ve probably heard the saying, “If you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.” When Koson made his stand he was determined to stick up for me, even going blow-for-blow with those three larger kids if he had to. Nothing was going to dissuade him. In hindsight, it was probably his conviction that made the fight unnecessary.
So far in my life, those things that I was absolutely committed to making happen, no matter how difficult or unlikely, became possible when I believed they would happen, when I was committed to them. And I don’t mean the corporate buzz-speak version of committed, like to synergistic customer service. I mean All. In. I mean when-I-strike-a-match-it’s-gonna-burn certainty of belief, and sell-your-blood-for-the-money-you-need committed. Those situations where I was only partially committed, or I only kinda believed were possible? They’ve always been harder to make happen. Occasionally they still did, but not always. Options are clearer, decisions easier when you’re all in.
This is about 25 years too late, but thanks for those 20 seconds, Koson. It made a bigger impact on me than you would have imagined. If at 41 I’m more brave than I was at 14, a measure of that credit belongs to you.
Rest in peace, friend.