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Falling for a challenge and landing in a HOT mess


I’m a sucker for a challenge. Always have been.

When I was just six years old, my brother dared me to climb a giant live oak tree in our backyard. It took a while (and some bayou ingenuity), but I eventually reached the first limb, and then shimmied my way up to the top. Over the next two years, I climbed every tree on the property, from loblolly pines and southern magnolias, to swamp maples and tupelo gums. They called me, “The Monkey Boy.”


Folwell as The Monkey Boy (photos provided by: Folwell Dunbar)

In college, I had a running bet with my wrestling teammate, Chuck. After Saturday matches, we would go out drinking shot-for-shot. At sunrise on Sunday, we would race up and down the entire length of Duke University’s Wallace Wade Stadium. The loser had to buy drinks the following week. It was the epitome of burning the candle at both ends.

My friend Zack and I have been challenging each other to feats of courage/stupidity for almost thirty years. We’ve ventured into the wilderness with nothing but a slingshot and a pocketknife, skitched behind cars on icy roads, scaled the face of tall buildings, trekked across Colombia during the height of the drug wars, and streaked down public beaches. His personal favorite is to stack people on his shoulders; I like to converse solely in limericks. Whatever we do, the wager is always the same: to admit to the other that you were impressed.

Scrapes, bruises and a few close calls aside, none of these stunts ever resulted in a serious injury – except for one…

When I was in college, I worked as a bartender. One night after my shift, my boss, Steve challenged me to a jalapeño eating contest. I, of course, jumped on the bet like a jaguar on a capybara.

Steve was a southern version of Tom Selleck’s Magnum, P.I. Instead of a Hawaiian shirt, he wore Duck Dynasty camouflage; and, instead of a Ferrari, he drove a Ford F-150. He was big and burly, the kinda guy who probably enjoyed eating jalapeños.

But I was a freshman in college, and, like most freshmen in college, I thought I knew everything. I figured I could defeat Steve’s brawn with a little intellectual dexterity. Like David before Goliath, I devised a simple, knock-out strategy: Instead of biting and chewing the peppers, I would cut them into chunks with a paring knife and swallow the pieces whole. With a little luck, I would avoid the heat and win the bet.

If it hadn’t been for Steve’s apparent immunity to capsaicin, and some errant pepper juice, I’m pretty sure my plan could have succeeded.

But, it didn’t.

Before we started, Steve glared at me through squinted eyes, called me “a punk,” and whispered in a gravelly voice, “Go ahead, make my day.” Unfortunately for me, the movie reference was devastatingly apropos.


Folwell and Chuck (photos provided by: Folwell Dunbar)

I cut a few peppers and started choking them down like horse pills. Within seconds, beads of sweat sprouted from my forehead and tears welled up in my eyes. My face began to quiver as my lips burst into flames.

I glanced over at Steve and saw him casually nibbling on his second pepper. He lifted up the half-eaten jalapeño, rubbed it slowly around the rim of his mouth, licked his lips, and then flashed a devilish grin.

I was definitely in trouble!

I threw back one more green, flaming Kingsford briquette, coughed it up on the bar, and then, like Roberto Durán, cried out, “¡No más!”

I plunged my head into the ice machine, and then started chugging everything from beer to vermouth – anything to extinguish the fire!

After consuming several pints and quarts (the origin of the expression, “mind your p’s and q’s” by the way), I, not surprisingly, had to use the restroom.

Standing over the urinal on spaghetti legs, still reeling from “the agony of defeat,” I felt a slight pang from my nether regions.

I looked down at my hands and noticed, to my extreme dismay, that they were covered in jalapeño juice.

The slight pang spread like napalm dropped from a plane. I collapsed on the bathroom floor, curled up in the fetal position, and howled like a howler monkey.


Self explanatory pose (photos provided by: Folwell Dunbar)

The pain was indescribable; but hell, pun intended, I’ll give it a shot: It felt like my private parts had been flayed with a rusty sawzall blade, wrapped in the tentacles of a Portuguese man o’ war, and then held over a colony of driver ants that mistook my mutilated member for the probing tongue of a hungry aardvark. Yep, that’s pretty much how it felt.

I wept like a child!

At one point, I actually considered lopping it off like Lorena Bobbitt. I figured it probably didn’t work anymore anyway.

An hour and a half later, whimpering on a toilet seat with a sack of ice held to my smoldering crotch, I started contemplating my next bet with Steve. Perhaps it would involve climbing trees, sprinting up stadium stairs, or writing limericks…


Folwell Dunbar is an educator, artist and hot pepper survivor. He can be reached at


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