Why I write? Different reasons, I think. But the first time I remember writing something—this was for my high school newspaper—it had to do with revenge, I think.
On rainy days, the phys. ed. teacher, Mr. Burdett, kept the class of maybe 30 boys busy playing a game known as Bombardment, a variation of dodge ball. The class was divided into two teams and each was assigned one side of the gym. The idea was simple: run up to the foul line and try to nail as many opponents as possible with one of the three balls in play—two volley balls and a basketball. The basketball could do the most damage, especially when hurled at high speed by one of the more sadistic and powerful psychopaths who attended South Brunswick High at that time. When a ball missed, it hit the folded-up bleachers, making a loud, resonant thwack. The exploding sound of balls bouncing off the bleachers, the coarse laughter of the bullies, and the screams of the terrified sissy boys lent to the event a vivid sonic aspect.
The smaller, more fragile kids would try to squeeze into the space between the bleachers and the wall, but Mr. Burdett would march over and yank them out, back into the open, to live in this world of pain. I guess he figured that when D-Day came around again, we’d be ready to hit the beaches.
I decided to describe a typical Bombardment session in a feature for the newspaper, only exaggerating for comic effect à la Mark Twain or H.L. Mencken. It was really a pretty dumb bit, as I remember. I transformed the two teams into mythic, Olympian armies and, at the end of the period, wounded heroes lay bleeding out on the gymnasium floor. Nevertheless, a number of parents were apparently appalled by my revelations and complained to the P.E. department.
The next day I was filing out of the cafeteria when Mr. Burdett collared me and, with a hurt look, said, “Why, Don? Why?”
Hmm, I thought, the pen really is mighty. Not knowing how to respond to a conquered adult, I just turned and walked down the hall. The thing was, I actually kind of liked Burdett. I just thought the Bombardment policy was dangerous and unjust. Right? Or was it revenge alone, served cold, pure and simple?
Donald Fagen was born in 1948 and grew up in New Jersey. He is a graduate of Bard College, where he met musician Walter Becker, with whom he formed Steely Dan. His writing has appeared in Premiere, Slate, Harper’s Bazaar, and Jazz Times. His book Eminent Hipsters will be published in October by Viking.