As a kid, I was a fat, weird smartass. So that hasn’t changed. What has changed is that I’m no longer thrown daily into a cellblock filled with bear rapists. You know, school. I even went to a school filled with weird smartasses and I was noticeably much weirder than they were. I had a target on my back like a Romanov in Santa Carla, and some of the local bullies were kind enough to oblige. I never experienced anything like a Stephen King protagonist, but it was unpleasant. I knew the solution – if you punch the shark in the nose, he’ll swim off and bug some other mammal – but actually doing that was another matter entirely.
I read The 18th Emergency, the young adult novel by Betsy Byars on which this week’s entry is based, at the height of my being bullied career. I wouldn’t say I was the Michael Jordan of being picked on. I was more like the Steve Kerr: a valuable teammate, but I couldn’t carry a game. Had I put my nose to the grindstone and put on a hundred pounds, maybe started eating other people’s dandruff or came to school as one of my D&D characters, maybe I could have been a franchise guy. So the basic plot of The 18th Emergency was relevant to me: young wiseacre pisses off possible HGH abuser, who then resolves to beat the holy living fuck out of said wiseacre.
For whatever reason, when producer Martin Tahse released this in 1974, he changed the title from the evocative and cryptic title of the book to “PSSST! Hammerman’s After You!” Presumably, this was to give the special some immediacy by tricking kids into believing that Hammerman was after all of them. This led to half a dozen Hammerman sightings all up and down the west coast.
What does “The 18th Emergency” mean? Ezzie, the main character’s fair weather friend, has identified seventeen hazards to living in the jungle despite the fact that Ezzie, like everyone else in the show, lives somewhere in Van Nuys. Ezzie has thoughtfully come up with ways around these emergencies. Attacked by an unfriendly lion? That’s emergency #5, and Ezzie recommends sticking your arm down its throat, proving that Ezzie is a closet Truffaut fan. Also, he it’s never explained why he specified “unfriendly” lion. I guess an attack by an amorous lion would immediately disqualify this as family viewing. In every case, Ezzie recommends doing the most counter-intuitive thing possible. We all had a friend like this. I remember getting advice from an older kid about how to escape quicksand. Quicksand seemed like a much more prevalent danger when I was six. I have yet to actually see any, but thanks to Sean O’Connor, I am prepared. The 18th Emergency becomes what one does when, pssst, Hammerman is after you.
Our hero is Benjy, a name that has since gone out of style. I wonder if it’s one of those names that only kicks in at a certain phase of life, like how there’s no such thing as a two-year-old named Mildred. There’s probably a more mundane explanation – Benjys have become Bens – but I live in a more magical world with dinosaurs, UFOs and Xbox controllers that don’t run out of batteries after two hours. His friends, cronies, acquaintances, contemporaries, well-wishers, near strangers, business associates and Masonic lodge fellows all call him Mouse because a girl kicked his ass and called him that. It was a scene worthy of the first act of The Shawshank Redemption: she punches him in the gut, he goes down, and she gives him his prison name. There’s supposedly some shame in this, but I’d like to play devil’s advocate for a second. The assault occurs at the age where girls have commenced their mutant form of super-puberty, are about a foot taller than the boys and have begun to look like well-fed American Apparel models. It would be like mocking Jenna Jameson for getting beaten up by Tito Ortiz. The name Mouse has stuck to such a degree that Benjy is even credited as “Mouse,” proving that Martin Tahse was in on Benjy’s bullying the whole time.
Benjy’s cowardice has dogged him since that day. Because this is a work of fiction, all the school lectures apply to Benjy’s dilemma. In real life, the lesson plans don’t really intersect with one’s emergency. Like if you accidentally started a human smuggling ring, the lessons wouldn’t suddenly be about the Underground Railroad and showings of Taken. The teacher would continue whatever he was talking about and you wouldn’t be listening anyway, since you’d be too worried that you forgot to punch holes in that cargo container. Fortunately for Benjy, he’s fictitious, and his teacher has thoughtfully decided to lecture on the Code of Chivalry. The teacher leaves out the weird parts, like pooping in one’s armor, sleeping in sacks, and the institutionalized stalking of married women (all true, by the way), and instead focuses on bravery. The lecture boils down to: “Man up, Mouse.”
Benjy also happens to be a compulsive tagger, which is what gets him into trouble in the first place. He writes ironic labels on walls and draws a looping arrow to indicate what he’s talking about. On an abandoned movie theatre, he’s helpfully scrawled “Great Popcorn” with an arrow pointing inside. On the large picture of the descent of man at school, Benjy foolishly labeled the Neanderthal as “Marv Hammerman.” Hammerman is not pleased, because he’s unaware of Neanderthal’s advanced toolmaking skills, thick bones and expanded nasal capacity and has instead chosen to focus on the fact that Neanderthal man looks like a young Luis Guzman.
Who is Marv Hammerman? Marv Hammerman has somehow managed to weaponize puberty, becoming a wall of beef with the name of a Frank Miller anti-hero. The entire school is terrified of him, telling stories that make him sound like he can shoot chainsaws out of his eyes. According to one story, he knocked out some kid’s two front teeth, which leads me to believe there were no such things as lawyers in the ‘70s. Maybe the law didn’t exist until Nixon, and the country as a whole decided we might want to make a couple things off limits. So Benjy decided to antagonize this guy, who sounds like a cross between Sauron and Robocop. I let Benjy off the hook in this case, since his tagging is clearly the result of a chemical imbalance.
Hammerman knows Benjy did it, probably because Benjy is famous for writing all over the school (that’s not a joke, his handiwork is on display outside the nurse’s office). What follows closely hews to the structure of Hamlet. Guy has a problem. Guy dithers. Guy faces problem, gets in a fight, and effectively cedes the country to Norway. The middle act of The 18th Emergency is Benjy hiding from Hammerman and Hammerman’s little sidekick, a kid who looks like Garth and calls himself Peaches. I guess that girl handed out a number of prison nicknames that day.
Benjy, of course, is still confused about why a little label should annoy Hammerman so much. After all, he reasons, Neanderthal was blessed with a robust physique perfectly adapted to hunting Pleistocene megafauna and a powerful voice ideal for yodeling, so why should Hammerman want to wear Benjy’s skin as a hat? It takes the lesson of Benjy’s neighbor, mute stroke-victim and checkers enthusiast Mr. Casino to shed some light on the situation. Mrs. Casino helpfully explains to Benjy that other people have feelings, even if they are unable to express them, like her poor husband. Benjy realizes that he hurt Hammerman’s feelings, so he kind of does have a beating coming. Strong men also cry, Mr. Lebowski. Strong men also cry.
To Benjy’s credit, he tracks Hammerman down to apologize. This part amused me, not because Hammerman was ubiquitous earlier and now harder to find than an untouched altar boy, but because it’s real. There’s never a bully around when you want to get things over with, so you have to go out of your way to find the guy just to accept a beating. Ah, the trials of youth. Anyway, Benjy tracks Hammerman down in front of the abandoned movie theatre because Hammerman only likes hanging out in front of scary places filled with the eyeless ghosts of clowns. Benjy does the right thing and apologizes for being a douche.
Hammerman beats his ass anyway. The impressive thing is that Benjy takes four solid hits from Hammerman and refuses to go down. This leads to a conversation between Hammerman and Peaches that closely mirrors the discussion between Johnny and Bobby re: whether Daniel LaRusso has had enough. Hammerman thinks his pound of flesh has been safely extracted, but Peaches (probably still pissed about being called Peaches and looking like Dana Carvey) demands that Hammerman keep going. Sanity prevails. Hammerman accepts Benjy’s apology and Benjy has won respect for both his integrity and sheer toughness. Everyone wins, except Peaches, who is still called Peaches. I just can’t emphasize this enough. I really hope he didn’t pick that name up at camp or from his priest.
Benjy walks home, bloodied but unbeaten. He runs into Ezzie along the way and shares the war story. In their conversation, Ezzie refers to Benjy by name rather than Mouse. Benjy has achieved the respect of his friends, and all it took was a little internal bleeding. It’s a reasonably complex forty-five minutes, owing to the fact that it came from a short novel. Lesson learned: don’t be a dick, and if shit gets real, face the music. Also, mix as many metaphors as possible. There’s nothing lonelier than being picked on and paradoxically nothing more universal. It isn’t a masterpiece of entertainment, but there are many worse ways to spend one’s time. Besides, the kid really does look like Garth.
Next up: “Summer of the Swans.” Sara learns that she needs to stop being a surly bitch with the help of Chris Knight. Also, swans and Eve Plumb.