A lot of life’s lessons aren’t taught in school. I wish they were.
Like the importance of kindness – and the fact things like marriages and careers tend to work out the way they are supposed to – so long as you are willing to work hard to cultivate and sustain them.
When I was in the 7th grade our educational system was a lot different than today.
Having come from the small, relatively cloistered environment of a parochial elementary school – where I went from Kindergarten to 6th grade with the same few faces – as a new student at Ormond Beach Junior High School, I was just beginning to learn the valuable social skills that allow us to “fit in,” get along in large groups and deal with different personalities.
I was never very coordinated – and I lacked the speed and strength to play sports – something that could be infinitely frustrating for any intramural team who had the poor fortune to end up with me as a member.
As a result, I was often the weak-link that resulted in the missed basket or strikeout that cost the game – and at 13-years old, that can be a big deal for precocious youngsters.
After one particularly egregious athletic blunder, a kid much bigger than I named Lamar Burch walked up to me, pushed me down on the ground, and said something akin to “get your head in the game, dummy.”
Well, at that point my incendiary temper was still in its infancy – and I took offense to Lamar’s schoolyard shove – so I pushed back – resulting in a brief skirmish that was quickly broken up by the legendary Coach Plemon Hill – who reminded us that our wrestling match was wasting, “your time, my time and everybody’s time.”
In turn, Coach explained that if we were going to fight – then we could work out our differences with the gloves on – but we weren’t going to disrupt his class by tussling on the field.
Lamar immediately accepted the pugilistic solution.
Given that Lamar was much bigger and stronger than I was, I was somewhat reluctant to pick up the gauntlet – but I didn’t want to look like a coward either – so, I puffed out my chest and readily agreed to settle our score in the boxing ring – which was no more than the confines of an old WWII Quonset hut that served as our locker room back before the extravagance of modern Taj Mahal public schools.
In the waning moments of class, Coach Hill gave us each a pair of oversize boxing gloves and head protection and set the rules – then Lamar Burch set about beating the hell out of me.
Once he bloodied my nose, Lamar stopped punching and basically kept me away from him with a series of soft jabs that put me at arm’s length – occasionally connecting to let me know that as far as he was concerned the fight was over.
To say he wiped the floor with me is an understatement – he won the fight fair-and-square – and when Coach saw that I had been bested he immediately stopped the bout and directed that we shake hands and leave our personal differences in the ring.
After putting things to rest in a way that would be unheard of today, Lamar and I became lifelong friends.
From him, I learned the all-important lesson of settling disputes in an honorable way – and never punching past the blow that renders your opponent incapable of defending himself.
There is no honor in that – only cruelty.
I also learned that it is possible to survive a bloody nose, to turn enemies into friends, and that we sometimes have more in common with those we disagree with than we realize.
As things happen, we went our separate ways after high school. I made a career in local law enforcement and Lamar made his living in the family car business – buying, selling and trading used cars.
Lamar loved everything about the automobile business – not because he particularly liked selling cars – but because it gave him the opportunity to work closely with his father, George, a man he loved very dearly and credited with teaching him the nuances of that very competitive pursuit – and the important lessons of living a good life.
We saw each other on occasion, usually in bars – and later in life – Lamar fell on hard times. But whenever we had a chance to meet, regardless of his circumstances, he greeted me with a huge smile, a great bear hug and hearty handshake.
He would invariably retell the story of our boxing match – each time putting his arm around my shoulder and explaining to anyone who would listen how I mopped the floor with him, the tenacity I exhibited during our match and what a tough competitor I had been in the ring. . .
To say he was an incredibly kind and gentle soul is an understatement, and he had a true gift for making others feel special.
The last time we met, I could tell something was wrong and that things weren’t well with him.
I bought us a round of beers – and a few more – as we talked about old times and commiserated on the fragility of relationships and life. He talked about the depth of his love for his daughter and family – and of his unrelenting grief over the loss of his father.
And we laughed as only old school chums can over old times and old people long past.
My friend Lamar Burch passed away this week. He was 59 years old.
Thank you for the bloody nose that taught me a valuable lesson about kindness and compassion and the wonderful, life-long benefits of putting petty differences aside.
Godspeed old friend.