Bradford Molsen, where are you?

MSFT internet magazine archiveI can play the clip in my head any time I want. The sun shines brightly on a clear, crisp day in November 1961. I am coming in off the playground with my sixth-grade class at Holmes School in Wheaton, Illinois. The boys are horsing around, jockeying for position in line, cutting up. We’ve just come up a slight, grassy incline onto the hard, cracked asphalt. For once, I join in the horseplay, and nudge the boy in front of me -- a hefty, tougher, taller kid named Bradford Molsen. Brad turns toward me with a look of delight on his face, balls up his fist, rears back, and KABLOOIE, punches me in the stomach as hard as he can.

I stare for a millisecond of extreme pain at Brad’s grin, his flattop haircut, his brown jacket. Then I can’t breathe, I fight for life, for air, for consciousness. I am aware of the boys and girls gathering around me, of someone’s hand on my arm, voices murmuring far away. And then all goes black and I fall forward, smashing my face into the blacktop.

Sometime later, someone helps me walk through bright sunshine and up concrete steps into the school. I am dazed, vague and confused. My face and mouth are bloody, my shirt is torn, and my shoulder hurts. At some point I realize that my two front teeth are broken off. I lie down on a hard wooden bench in the principal’s office and wait for one of my parents to arrive.

Within a few weeks of that day in 1961, my family moved to a different state, a different town. I never saw Bradford or any of my Wheaton classmates again. My face and shoulder healed. A dentist pulled the stumps of my teeth and gave me a temporary, plastic bridge that served for another decade. But for years I carried with me a deep anger and a hatred of Brad Molsen that just wouldn’t leave. He represented all the kids who made fun of me or wouldn’t choose me for sports teams or thought I was weird or stupid.

And I knew I never wanted to see him as long as I lived.

A Ghost at Christmas

When I visited my parents last Christmas (note; this was December of 1996), my father brought out a series of my grade school class photographs that he’d found in an album. There I was, with all those kids I’d spent so many years with, all the way from kindergarten through sixth grade. Most of the faces looked familiar, though I could remember few of the names. Except for one -- Bradford Molsen, whose name and face were branded in my memory along with that ever-available clip of the playground scene. And in every one of those class photos there was Brad, always somewhere near me, looming over me like some evil, ineluctable fate.

The last of the photos, in sixth grade, was the last ever taken of me with my own two original front teeth -- with the visible gap between them and the obvious overbite! Looking at the photos, I realized that I had long ago forgiven Brad, and wondered whether he was as happy and fortunate as I am today. I hoped so.

Conducting the Search

A few weeks ago (note: this was in March of 1997), I decided to try using the Internet to find Brad. I looked up his name on several "people-finding" Web sites listed in the Internet Start pages, and to my surprise found there was only one Bradford Molsen anywhere in the United States. What‚Äôs more, he lived within a few miles of me here in the Seattle area! I was sure it was he. By contrast, there were several people with my name listed, and others I looked up had multiple namefellows. I felt a bizarre, unexplainable compulsion to call him. I was sure he would have no desire to talk to me. We had never really been friends, and then there was the matter of my missing teeth. I had an irrational, atavistic thought that if he knew that I lived within striking distance, he might waltz right over to my house, grab me by the scruff of my neck, and beat the crap out of me.

I marshaled my courage and called Brad anyway. My heart was pounding and my mouth was dry. When we finally spoke and he realized who I was, there was a moment of startled silence. Then, "Andy? Andy Himes? Wow! I’ve been waiting for 36 years to tell you how sorry I am that I beat you up! I can’t tell you how important this call is to me, to know that you’re all right, that you’re doing well!"

I said I was glad he was doing well too, and said I wanted him to know that I wasn’t still mad at him. I was also thinking, "How strange, picking up this conversation as if it hadn’t been interrupted almost four decades ago, as if I were still 11 years old."

A Different Brad

Brad said, "Andy, I was a terrible person back then, a mean person, but I’m not like that any more. I’ve changed. That time I beat you up, it changed me. You were the last person I ever beat up, the last person I even fought. In fact, when I went on into junior high and high school, I got a reputation as the big kid who let other people push him around, because I was afraid I would hurt someone. My experience with you changed the whole way that I relate to people, to my family today, to my wife and my two kids."

We spent a long time on the phone that night, getting to know each other, reliving old memories and recalling old friends. He told me about his family, and his job using a computer to do 3-D modeling, and how he’d moved to Seattle back in 1979. I told him about my wife, my daughter, my parents, my work. When I finally hung up, I sat there on the sofa in my living room for a long time, with tears spilling down my face. I felt an odd mixture of emotions--happy I had found Brad again, but sad that I had been so angry at him for so long.

Unfinished Business

Over the next few days, Brad and I traded e-mail, and I invited him to visit me at work. We sat in a Microsoft cafeteria with the sun shining through the windowed wall as brightly as it had on that long-ago day in 1961, and we traded all the years and memories of our separate lives. It was bizarre seeing him with an oddly double vision -- viewing both the face of the child I had known and the man he had become.

Andy & BradI found that our lives had unexpected parallels. Brad had developed a profound philosophy of non-violence, and when he was drafted during the Vietnam War he declared himself a conscientious objector. He wrote a long paper explaining why he believed it was morally wrong to hurt or to kill another human being. He presented the paper to his lieutenant on the day he was drafted into the Navy, and was later discharged for reasons of conscience. At the same time in 1969 I was becoming passionately and wholeheartedly active in the antiwar movement because of my own rage at what I viewed as the meaningless slaughter in Vietnam.

We went to colleges a short distance from each other in Wisconsin, and in later years, both of us moved to Seattle, worked with computers, and raised families. Both of us had felt in some inexplicable way bound to the other, with unfinished business between us.

Repairing the Human Community

Now, with the aid of the Web, and the assistance of new technologies, and in the context of a new kind of global community, we’ve connected again.

This, the last decade of the 20th century, is a complex, terrifying, and entrancing time to be alive. Many of us have been part of a vast diaspora in the wake of World War II, as economic dislocations, technological revolutions, and cultural shifts altered our landscapes, dismantled our communities, and flung us to other towns, other provinces, and other countries. But now the Internet offers us new and unexpected opportunities to rebuild that small-town sense of community we thought we had left behind us.

I’m grateful I’ve been able to embark on this excursion with my new, old friend, Brad Molsen.

Andrew Himes was a knobby, awkward, insecure, and bookish child who grew up to become a smashingly handsome and articulate although knobby, awkward, insecure, and bookish adult. He is a former member of the Microsoft Kachina Web Team, future Ping-Pong¬Æ bum, and aspiring novelist.

This essay was first published on the Internet Start page at Microsoft.com -- the default start page for the first versions of the Internet Explorer web browser. I was the manager of the first web team at Microsoft, and this was my opening story in a series of articles I launched on how the fledgling Internet might reshape human relationships and possibilities.

HOME & FAMILY / April 14, 1997