I’m still not sure of the chain of events that led to it, but my friends and I, about 8th grade, began to show our asses. I mean this literally—riding to school with our older brothers or sitting at the back of the bus going to an away basketball game, we’d drop our pants and present our posteriors to someone behind us, our butts against the cold window for all the world to see.
This was at a time we considered “I’m With Stupid” T-shirts and making farting noises with a hand beneath our armpit witty repartee, so I’m not surprised we decided exposing ourselves was the right thing to do. We had to navigate through the minefield of junior high, even before Facebook and cellphones and Miley Cyrus, and we decided to do that navigating with our pants down. I suppose the changing of our bodies and the deepening of our voices, the uncomfortableness of it all, drove us to extremes. Given a choice we might have hidden in our rooms or run away to join the Republican Party during those awkward teenage years, but, since we had no choice, we rebelled in the opposite direction. If puberty made us miserable, then here was a way to counter the miserableness of it all. If our bodies had decided to betray us, we would expose them for what they were.
Part of the reason we did this might have been that there was so much of each other we saw on a daily basis. In 4th period P.E. and 7th period Athletics we were surrounded by nakedness, before and after class. Crammed into small locker rooms and given only a few minutes to change, there was no way to hide what was happening to all of us, the pimples and pubic hair, the unpleasant smells, the wild swing of emotions. Raise your head from lacing your shoes and there’s an ass in your face. Look up from slipping on your socks and there’s something else, vaguely sock-like, dangling in front of you.
I suppose, too, we might have been trying to make some mark. To rise above the anonymity of junior high, separate our faces—or at least our other end—from the crowd milling aimlessly on the front steps before the first bell, everyone dressed in the latest fad, notebooks scrawled with the names of friends as if to remind us we had them.
We started small, a quick flash in the locker room or on the basketball court after school, any time we wore pants with elastic waistbands. But soon the asses were everywhere. You’d be riding to school or home afterward, staring out the windows at the winter fields, breath fogging the glass, thinking about the uncertain future, and then bam, there’s a butt flinging by. Or you’d walk into the locker room after class and see a dozen pale moons pointed your way, as if you were the guest of honor and here was your salutation.
One Saturday night in our small town we cruised the strip slowly, someone’s older brother driving, me and T and S waiting for someone to tailgate us, to flash on the high beams, and when they did we beamed them back in unison. We spent the rest of the night pulling our pants down, and the following Monday T and S escalated the adventure when they began mooning teachers in the classroom. When Mrs. W turned to diagram the gestation period of a giraffe on the board, T jumped from his seat, his pants already loosened, then spun and flashed the teacher’s back before plopping down again. S waited until Mrs. P was fast-forwarding past the sex scene in Romeo and Juliet, then flashed R and J a moon of his own.
From then on, nowhere was safe. In the hallways, in the parking lots, in the toy aisle at Wal-Mart. On church buses and school buses and team buses, the smell of sodas and sweat accompanying us. We flashed the police station and the high school and the Methodist Church. We mooned the baseball field in summer, and ran through the empty halls of school when we’d stayed late after practice, exposing ourselves to the classrooms we hated, to the principal’s office, to all the trappings of the stifling institution that was junior high. We knew even then we were being herded, groomed for the corporate world or the factories or the military, depending on which track our test scores told us to take. At a time when we couldn’t even keep our asses covered we were expected to make decisions that would affect our future selves, whom we thought about only when left alone for a moment after coming home to our cold houses, our empty rooms that looked out on frost-bitten fields, the grass turned brown now with winter.
The only way to counter the changes inside you was to show your disdain for the world around you, we thought, so we mooned the Civics teacher when she forced us to be aware of that changing world. The Cold War was still cold as ever, ten thousand Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles standing ready to fill the night skies, enough nukes to destroy the world a dozen times over. There was crack in the inner cities and cocaine in the high-rises. Reagan invaded tiny Grenada to make us forget our terrible loss in Vietnam, AIDS was devastating Africa, and the economy was going to hell in a handcart, our parents told us. We were already afraid of the changing world within us and now began to fear the world outside us as well, so we showed our asses to any agent of order: our Sunday School teacher and our principal and our parents, the Game and Fish Commission officer, the army recruiter, the meter maid.
We snuck out of our houses late at night and hid in ditches and rose up to flash the passing cars. We withdrew from Wednesday night church and mooned the stained-glass windows where Jesus wallowed on the cross.
And one fall evening, after our parents had dropped us off at a school dance and we’d become bored with the same girls we’d known all our lives and the same tired songs played at all the dances, T and S and I went walking through the streets of town. This was something we did often, when we spent the night with one another, after our parents had fallen asleep and we had already talked about what we would do if we ever got out of where we were from. We went through the elementary school we’d been in only a few years before, past the swing sets and the jungle gym and the muddy fields where we played Smear the Queer and kickball. On the other side of the school we went down 6th Street as a slight wind stirred the tops of the trees. The houses were quiet, picture windows spilling light down into the yards as people sat in front of their TVs, faces changing from light to dark. Already we were headed for what we would become, the fights with parents, the sudden rage at anything and everything, the disinterest in school.
T and I were walking in the middle of the street when we realized S was crossing the yard of the nearest house, staying to the shadows. When he went through the streetlight we saw him clearly for a moment, laughing as he climbed up on the front porch. Through the big picture window we could see an old man and woman watching TV. S unbuttoned his pants. He turned away from the window, then took a few steps backward, placing his ass against it. He looked up at T and me and smiled, then reached back to rap on the glass.
The word “moon” has been a common metaphor for buttocks since the 18th century. The verb “to moon” has meant to expose to moonlight since the 17th. Mooning dates back to ancient times as a way to shame an enemy or to offer insult. There are also variations, such as the sun and the salad bowl, but we stuck to the basics. We would not be crass. Mooning was a form of art; sunning could get you a rap sheet.
The first incident of mooning ever recorded was in 80 CE, when a Roman soldier mooned Jewish pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem, causing a riot, and an aggressive response from the Roman Army.
At the Siege of Constantinople in 1204, the Greeks exposed their bare buttocks to the Crusaders after they expelled them from the walls.
During the Battle of Crecy in 1346, several hundred Norman soldiers mooned English archers; the archers retaliated with bowshots.
Anasyrma, a gesture of lifting the kilt or skirt, was used in Ancient Greece in connection with religious rituals, eroticism, and lewd jokes. The term is also used in describing corresponding works of art.
In 2006, a Maryland court determined that mooning is a form of artistic expression protected by the First Amendment as a form of speech, although we didn’t know then that we were artists. If we had rules, none of them were written down, but we didn’t flash the disabled or anyone with a visible mole, the thought being that those people had been exposed to enough harshness already in life. Churches were off-limits; church parking lots were not. Girls you wished to date were exempt; girls you had already dated were free game.
Now you can see an ass every five minutes on TV, but in the conservative 80s that was not the case. We’d not yet been exposed to Internet porn, or even the Victoria’s Secret catalogue with its waifish “angels” pouting in pink lace panties. There was no Ultimate Fighting, where men in speedos roll around hugging for an hour.
In other words, we didn’t know our behavior had a long history. But those Normans who showed their asses to the French were riddled with arrows, the riot that resulted from the mooning in 80 killed thousands of Jewish pilgrims, and the walls of Constantinople eventually fell to the invaders and the city was burned.
Which is to say that we might have learned a lesson, had we only known.
There were more people at the dance when we got back, out of breath, laughing so hard we could hardly stand. The lights were spinning and Wham or Madonna or Hall and Oates were playing while people our age stood against the walls with their arms crossed, not looking at anyone else, somehow dreading both being here and leaving in that way only our early teenage years can produce. We crossed the corner of the dance floor and went up into the bleachers where the lights didn’t reach, trying to hide, already sure something was coming for us.
After S tapped on the window, the old man and woman looked around as if they’d never heard a tap on the glass before and didn’t know where it was coming from. In the glare of the TV they couldn’t see out the window. They both squinted. The woman put on her reading glasses. T and I stood in the yard, feeling something between shame and elation. S was showing his ass, but he had also just given a great big moon to the world we couldn’t control, exemplified by this old couple who sat washed by the glow of the TV on a Saturday night, who, instead of embracing the great world outside the window, had chosen to lock themselves behind it. Instead of looking out, they were looking in, as everyone did in our small town. Or so it seemed at the time. It was really just two old people who couldn’t see without their glasses, but you can’t explain that to a 13-year-old boy who has too many emotions rolling around inside him, too many fears for the future, too many pimples popping up on his once-clear skin, too much hair in formerly bare places.
By the time the old man stood and took a few steps toward the window, S was pulling his pants up, but either the old man had come close enough to see, or S’s butt left prints on the window. I didn’t know then whether or not a person could be identified by butt prints, but I saw the old man turn to say something to his wife, who picked up the phone, which was about the time I began to think that maybe instead of showing our complicated teenage psyches to everyone around us, our disdain for adulthood and our fear of the state of affairs in the world, that maybe we were just acting like children who don’t know any better, and when we saw the police walk into the dance with their flashlight beams bobbing up and down clearly not in time to the music, I knew we were.
The police reported the incident to the school and the administration got wind of the happenings. Not long after that someone squealed on T and S’s classroom strikes. They were called to the principal’s office and the very area of their bodies that had so often been exposed was punished by being struck repeatedly with a wooden paddle and then suspended for a week. All of them, that is. Not just their asses. The principal decreed that anyone caught exposing himself would be expelled from school.
I suppose he had never been inside one of the athletic locker rooms. Or had forgotten what it was like. Maybe when he went to school in the 50s men wore full body suits while changing clothes to keep from exposing any parts of their hidden selves, but times had changed. The decorum of the 50s had decomposed, fallen into disrepair. The nuclear family had become a family scared of anything nuclear. The silent majority was now a moral majority who liked to drink and snort coke while forbidding others from doing so, and Christian values had morphed into Christian politics, hell-bent on punishing sin instead of forgiving the sinner. There was the fear of the missiles flying, and because of that uncertain future, there seemed, for a time, no reason in the world not to show your ass. Or perhaps this has always been the way we act when we are faced with the changing of our bodies, and at some point after that change comes the realization that the world is full of men showing their asses, and has been since the Greeks, who created the foundations of democracy but also occasionally lifted their togas to expose their nether regions when things didn’t go their way.
But before that realization are the carefree years, the years of mad-mooning, followed by pot and alcohol and careless sex, the only thing to worry about when to strike next, when to make your mark on the world before the world ends itself or you are forced into whatever field has been chosen for you. It didn’t matter that your credibility was cheapened by your pants being down, only that you did something people would remember you by. Ahead of you are the trappings of adulthood, the car payments and weedeaters, the tinkering around in the garage on a Sunday afternoon before falling asleep in front of the TV. The weight gain and hair loss, the back fat and bad decisions, the jobs you don’t want working for people you don’t like. But until then there’s a boy on a porch with his pants down around his ankles, tapping softly on a big picture window while an old couple refuses to remember what it was like to be young.
Rumpus original art by Drew Bremer.