Bridges and a Brontosaurus

Shawn-Kid PictureMy grandmother is on facebook. This is dangerous. The picture to the left is the reason why. Her antics, however, got me thinking about my childhood.  Yesterday was also my older sister’s birthday (Happy Birthday, Amber), which got me thinking about the impact she has had on my life. Together, the two events triggered a stray memory of Brian and Kevin Wilson.

Brian and Kevin were my friends and my childhood tormentors. Childhood relationships were complex on my small street. We played together on a regular basis. They kicked my ass on a regular basis.  Well, that is, whenever Amber was not around. Amber was only one year older than me. I know it’s all a bit embarrassing  However, in my defense, girls mature more rapidly than boys at this age. Moreover, she had the “do not hit a girl” social constraint working in her favor. Even the Wilsons boys had to adhere to that rule.

I have an image of her standing like a sentinel in our front yard with her head on a swivel looking for any signs of trouble. When such trouble was spotted, regardless of the geographical location of the altercation, she could reach me in three to four strides.  Amber had unusually long legs for a child.

On one occasion, the Wilsons got the best of me. Who am I kidding, they always got the best of me.  However, this one occasion would turn out to be the last occasion.  After the ass-kicking, I remember retreating to the safety of home in tears. Upon reaching the screen door, I began yanking on the handle feverishly. It would not open.  My mom was standing on the other side.  She looked down at me and said “Don’t ever come back to this house crying again.”

For years, I would reflect on that moment and think of how harsh it was. This is no longer the case. It turns out that my mother was a game theorist. As Dixit and Nalebuff discuss in their “Art of Strategy”:

“Recall the advice of Sun Tzu: “When you surround an enemy, leave an outlet free.”  One leaves an outlet free not so that the enemy may actually escape but so that the enemy may believe there is a road to safety. If the enemy does not see an escape outlet, he will fight with the courage of  desperation.” (emphasis mine)

She had burned the bridges. She had scuttled the ships. She had taken away my escape route.

Soon after, things would play out to justify this strategic move. I was in my front yard playing when the Wilsons approached. Amber was nowhere in sight. I turned to the house to retreat. My mom appeared in the screen door. She had her hands on her hips and no emotions on her face.  At that moment I had a choice: face the Wilsons or face my mother. Anyone who knows my mother knows that this was a false choice. I was desperate. Having no retreat, I turned toward my tormentors and let loose a flurry of punches, kicks, bites, scratches, and guttural screams.  The neighbors came running out of their homes (Ruth and Bob, Claudette and Roger). My mother stayed behind the screen door. No one tried to stop me. Indeed, they cheered me on.  A few high-fives were exchange between me and the neighbors as the Wilsons limped home.

Not sure how long it lasted but Brian and Kevin never bothered me again. It worked. Looking back, I can only image how hard it was for my mom to play that strategic move. Thanks, mom.

PS Just for the record, my mother was not a master of strategy.  The same woman who pulled off the whole “burn your bridges” move is the same woman who sent me to school in fourth grade with a t-shirt that said “No More Mister Nice Guy” spelled in stone letters with a Brontosaurus sitting on top.  I quickly got my ass kicked by Ray Ellington at the water fountain.


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