Bad Boys

When I was a kid, there was in my home town a very bad boy named John Junior MacDonald. I was about eight or nine the first time I heard his name. My mother and I were downtown getting new school clothes for me, and somebody said, “Yonder comes John Junior MacDonald!” People stepped out of doorways to look at him swaggering toward us, and my mother pushed me behind her to hide me. He was probably no older than I, but he was smoking a big cigar and he walked with the slightly bow-legged roll of a man. Being a very good girl, there was something about that very bad boy that fascinated me.

John Junior MacDonald— people always used all three names when they spoke of him — didn’t go to school, and nobody tried to make him. People said he didn’t have a mother, and that his father was in and out of prison. I don’t recall anybody ever speaking of him with compassion, but only in a kind of horrified disgust. To me, he represented freedom and a kind of in-your-face rebellion that I knew I’d never be able to experience.

He soon disappeared from my radar, and I forgot about him. He and I went on to live up to what other people expected of us. About thirty years after I first laid eyes on him, my husband and I drove up from Houston to the Texas Prison Rodeo in Huntsville. The prison rodeo was a big deal back then, both for the inmates and the thousands of visitors who came to see them. Before the rodeo itself, you could shop in the prison craft shops for items handmade by criminals. I bought a hand-tooled leather belt that had dainty blue flowers carved into it, and felt a little shiver at the idea of some killer putting a little of himself into making those flowers.

The rodeo itself had all the regular rodeo features like bull riding, with some added things like wild cow milking. But the big event that everybody looked forward to was the Hard Money Event, when a bunch of inmates got into the arena with a mad wild bull who had a Bull Durham tobacco sack tied between his horns. The sack had $50 in it, and the inmate who got in close and grabbed that sack without getting gored or trampled got to keep the money. It was dangerous and insane and the crowd loved it. The inmate who grabbed that sack on the day I was there was John Junior MacDonald. When the announcer gave his name, I gave a big Whoop! and said “I know him!” I said it proudly, too, which caused my husband to give me a long speculative look.

The announcer went on to say that John Junior MacDonald was serving a life sentence at the Ellis Unit, the place where the baddest of the bad were put, so I knew he must have killed one person too many, even for Texas. But I was still proud of him. It didn’t make a lick of sense, but I was. Not that I wanted to start corresponding with him or anything, but I was glad to see that life hadn’t beaten the spirit out of that bad boy. He was like the wild bull in the ring, being what nature and nurture had programmed him to be.

If this story has a moral, it’s that none of us can ever know how we affect other people, even people whose lives are far removed from our own.


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