A Tribute to Lynn Bell
©1999 by Spider Johnson back to Essays
As I have written before, I grew up around some tough rascals, and out of self-preservation, became somewhat of a tough guy myself, although my heart was never really in it. Whatever the mysterious magnetism was however, I seemed to find myself in the midst of a scuffle one way or the other.
In Dupre elementary school in Lubbock, TX, I became aware of a classmate in about the third grade named Lynn Bell, a short, stocky fellow, through a playground disagreement between the two of us during which I barely got the best of him and we became lifelong pals after he subsequently chased me around a while until he wasn't angry any more. We attended school together through high school, including the tempestuous years at a particularly tough junior high.
O.L. Slaton Jr. High just happened to host a collection of fight-loving folks while I attended it, and I have no clue why that was so. Perhaps it was the times, perhaps it was the part of town it was situated in--I don't know. There was hardly a week when there wasn't at least two or three fights on or near the school grounds, and not a few of them had my active, if half-hearted, participation. Lynn Bell showed up for many of them, it seemed. Yet there was something different about his fighting from all the others that I couldn't recognize at the time: he took up for others when a sense of justice was at stake.
Lynn would have made a perfect real-life movie cop, the kind who did the right thing for people, particularly when authority figures would not. He often got in trouble with the authorities, whether it was school principals or the police, and it did not deter his commitment to fighting for justice. I remember an occasion when several of us were having lunch at a sandwich diner across from our high school and Lynn came up to me and said, "Spider, back me up." I then noticed that a couple of our female senior classmates were being bothered by a couple of scruffy-looking 19- or 20-year old fellows, guys who were clumsily attempting to flirt with them and who were not put off by the girls' rebuffs. Out of loyalty to my friend Lynn, I nervously stood up beside him, along with a couple of other friends, while he confronted the pair of older, bigger fellows, and told them in no uncertain terms to leave the girls alone. When the pair began to verbally answer the challenge, the clamor attracted the notice of the diner's proprietor, who ordered all of us outside, where the shouting match continued briefly and ended without further incident. Some student onlooker reported the event to the principal, who called us in that afternoon and berated us unjustly for simply taking up for the girls--an honorable gesture on our part, but perhaps not the best way to handle it. We took it in stride, but Lynn was furious for the principal's unwillingness to see the honor in our attempt, and I don't blame him. I just didn't want to escalate the problem by arguing with the principal, like Lynn, and risk getting suspended, like Lynn. But I would now, and I do often.
Lynn enlisted in the marines in 1967, a couple of months before he graduated from high school, and went off to fight in Viet Nam. I lost track of him and never saw him again, although I would hear about him from time to time afterwards. The last I heard was that he died violently somewhere, probably standing up for someone else, standing up for justice where there was none, where there needed to be some. He taught me how important it was to risk much for justice, not just my own, but for the sake of justice itself, because it is important to live in a world where justice is valued over revenge or fear or inaction, and to teach that justice comes only at a price. Lynn Bell loved justice so much, all his life, that he gave his life for it.
Thank you, Lynn. As for me, I promise you it was and will be worth it.