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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Bullying Comes to the Valley…

Swan HeavenThroughout the Christmas season most evenings we take a break from the rigors of the day and watch a Christmas movie. Call it our movie advent, if you will. One of our favorites is “The Christmas Story,” or the “You’ll shoot your eye out!” movie. A running storyline involves a couple of back alley ruffians: Scut Farkas (“He had yellow eyes…my God, he had yellow eyes…) and “Grover Dill, his crummy little toadie” who waylay their victims on their way home from school. For these two urchins it’s all about intimidation, harassment, and knuckle sandwiching their peers. In short, they are the neighborhood bullies—or at least until Scut himself gets knuckled under by Ralphie.

Bullying has been around since bigger and smaller/stronger and weaker were invented, and until recently such antisocial behavior has been ignored or disregarded because, for one, it’s always been a fact of human existence, and secondly, it’s hard to root out and eradicate. In the past, public school grounds and classrooms have been the stage for much bullying; however, the internet and social media networks have allowed mean-spiritedness free rein and in many cases online harassment has become downright vicious. Cyber bullying it is called these days and in several instances the end result has been youthful tragedy. Though most schools now have a “no tolerance” policy on bullying, it persists and probably is as prevalent as ever. Besides, the internet is beyond the Public School’s jurisdiction. Even government appears stymied where online intimidation is concerned.

Looking back on my school years, I don’t remember being bullied. Sure, I had a set to with a classmate once in a while, but no bear-baiting (the Brewster Bears…) occurred that to this day has me experiencing post traumatic stress nightmares or cold sweats. I do remember two classmates, brother and sister, who because of their home life, were ridiculed and teased throughout their school years--not bullied in the physical sense, but bullied emotionally certainly. I owned a peripheral share of their torment, I’m not proud to say, and not just because I didn’t come to their defense, either.

For a couple years in my early teens I took to bullying a handful of younger ranch kids, would start in on them as soon as the school bus pulled away. I would terrorize these unfortunates down the long driveway and still to this day, I’m puzzled at my behavior. Perhaps I bullied them because they were younger; perhaps I bullied them because I could; perhaps they were just there. In his memoir “The Thanksgiving Visitor” the writer Truman Capote recalls being tormented by a bully named Odd Henderson. In the midst of one bullying session where Odd had Capote shoved against a wall and was battering him about, the boy asked his assailant just what he had done to be so disliked. Odd replied, “You’re a sissy and I’m just straightening you out.” I don’t believe I perpetrated my misbehavior on my fellow ranch mates for that reason.

The boss’s son was among the kids I bullied, and to get at the roots of the problem, the boss called for a summit meeting between him, my dad and me. Then, like now, I couldn’t explain my behavior, was sullen to the point of being disrespectful. The meeting resolved nothing and amounted to little more than an embarrassment for Dad ( I received a scathing earful afterwards, every word of which I certainly deserved). A day or two later I exited the school bus with vengeance (or my own embarrassment) on my mind, snatched the boss’s kid from the bus’s exhaust, wrestled him out into the orchard and shoved his head in an irrigation ditch. After he was muddied enough, I released him and continued on home where I was sure later that night I would pay dearly for my bullying baptismal.

Days passed. No ax fell. No retribution. No punishment. I was spared, I realized, because my victim, in spite of becoming an ingredient folded into a mud pie, never said a word about the incident. I never bullied him again, and you might say a long friendship forged in a ditch began. I believe that singular incident ended my bullying career. My friend’s keeping mum appealed to my nobler instincts, I guess.trumpeters landing

Perhaps it was my involvement in such antisocial behavior that to this day I’m hypersensitive where bullying of any kind is concerned. Just the other day I was witness to some bullying in the Valley. Although it was bullying of the avian kind, bullying it was nonetheless. As Gladys and I wobbled along the lower Loop Road adjacent to Frohnings’ cornfield, I spied some large bird activity and stopped to watch the commotion. Three bald eagles were bullying a smaller bird. At first I thought their victim was a seagull but soon realized it was a lesser raptor, a hawk of some kind. Too large to be a northern harrier, I thought, and noting the longer wings and swept back forewing, believed the eagles’ target to be an osprey (“fish hawks,” my brother calls them). The eagles were trying to bully the hawk out of the sky. It would no more escape the talons of one eagle when another would take its place. At one point the eagles nearly downed their victim. The osprey was the lighter bird, the more agile flier and frantically sought more altitude for safety. The lumbering eagles tried to match the osprey’s climb but were slowly left behind. To my relief the beleaguered bird gained the high ground and flew off to the southwest to fish again another day. Deprived of their sport, the four eagles (a fourth had joined the trio, too late to participate in the fun) dispersed. Now that there was no more to see, Gladys and I moved along. A pair of the eagles flapped their way to a tall cottonwood tree by the Lower Loop bridge and roosted there. Gladys gave them a scolding ting-a-ling as we passed beneath.

In town years ago I witnessed another spectacle of avian bullying, a vicious attack by a flock of crows on a snowy owl. The owl had perched in a tall fir on a branch that offered little cover. Owls and crows are natural enemies and apparently the conspicuous white silhouette of the owl attracted a keen-eyed black marauder. The following raucous assault on the unfortunate owl could have been a scene right out of a Hitchcock movie. When I first noticed the fracas, only three crows were tormenting their victim. Their commotion rallied crow after crow until nearly two dozen worked in concert to dislodge the owl. This they finally did and the owl took flight, heading for Buck Island and more cover. The last I saw of it, the owl was a harried white speck in a maelstrom of swirling black crows at least fifty strong. This was bird bullying at its worst, and I was helpless to stop it. I’ve often wondered if the hapless owl survived the onslaught of so many vicious, black beaks. Little wonder the collective term for a flock of crows is “a murder.”

Given the fact that bullying flourishes in the world of humankind, it should come as no surprise that it exists in the natural world, too. Thus the hierarchy in a flock of chickens gives us the term “henpecked.” (Interesting, isn’t it, that the word in usage nearly always precedes “husband,” a curious crossover from the world of animals to our own.) Pack animals have the “alpha” male, the leader of the pack, who bullies his way to “top dog” and must continue to bully to stay there.

Back to the bullying eagles…three of the four were juveniles obviously up to no good, full of the delinquency of youth. The fourth displayed the snowy white head and tail of a fully mature adult. Now, let me ask you, what kind of adult is it that not only participates in bullying but models bad behavior for its young?Cascade winter

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