IN WHICH I deal with one type of bully.
Ex-marine sergeant and Troop 16 scoutmaster George Murray strutted four patrols away from the one I was in, Patrol 7. Its leader, tall, lanky, wiry Paul “Gussie” Gusterton, was frantically trying to button the collar of his uniform. If he failed at that, he wouldn’t be able to attach his neckerchief properly. It would look . . . sloppy. And there would be consequences . . . .
At five feet eight George Murray must have been twenty pounds overweight. Probably in his late thirties, he was seventy percent bald and looked like he’d tried and failed to cover his bald spot with his Boy Scout garrison cap. His communications skills were nil. Like Pierre, the standard poodle who lived across the street from us, he just barked at me and everyone else. I may have been wary of him then, but I sure as shootin’ didn’t envy his job. As troop leader, Murray never cracked a smile or chuckled over a Boy’s Life “Think & Grin” joke, and I don’t remember him having an assistant scoutmaster he could confer with. He was alone on an island with kids who’d played with firetrucks only weeks earlier and couldn’t start a campfire with three paper matches (or two wooden ones) if they’d heard a cougar roaring nearby that happened to be terrified of fires. I’d been in his troop only a week, but even I knew that a messy getup like Gussie’s was one of Murray’s key infractions and could earn him a thirty push-up penalty. I’d heard that the communists had captured him in Korea in 1952, so here was a hardened man who tolerated nothing even close to an unbuttoned collar or crooked neckerchief.
All I did was gape and wonder what was going to happen next. It was like I was watching a TV comedy like Leave it to Beaver and Beaver had done something he shouldn’t have or forgotten to do something really important. The solution to three years of Dickie Shears whaling on me was right in front of me and I wasn’t getting it.
There were other bullies who’d plagued my life, and each tormented me in their own way. They were like different breeds of insects: a greenhead fly that takes a bite out of your flesh and blood trickles down your back; a deer fly, which was a greenhead wannabe that doesn’t hurt so much but is more persistent; and a mosquito that pierces your flesh at outdoor barbecues, making you mad for the screened-in world. I had no idea how to shoo any of them away. Yes, bullies were drawn to me, inspired by the scent of fear. But Dickie was one of the worst.
The Washington Post reported that 25% of school-age boys say they were bullied (“Being a Boy,” 12/19/2018). The real total is probably higher than that, since who wants to admit, even to their parents, that they were getting the shit kicked out of them every day?
I was one of them, with three medieval brigands after me in the space of three years. Two back to back in one year. I felt like I was running out of options. I was terrified of the ride to school. I should have been scared of other things, like not having studied for the history test, or being exiled to the hall only to be discovered by the principal (who happened to be a friend of the family who said “Why Peter Bates! What would your Aunt Carolyn say?”) And what about the time Geri Gomulka slapped me off balance for touching her hair? (I deserved a sharp rebuke– at most.) All worthy of fear and trembling. But none deserved being whaled on.
And should I have been scared of a bully who wasn’t much bigger than me? No, but I was. Ridiculous as this sounds, I had no idea how to handle him.
Dickie Shears was a dirty blond boy with a gruff voice and a prominent widow’s peak that made him look like a golden-crowned flying fox I once saw on the cover of All About Bats. He hung out at the school bus stop and chased me around trees and clumps of other kids. One time during a pursuit, I fell on the newly paved macadam road and skinned my knee so badly I still have the scar. I limped around for a week but what I remember most was not the pain, but the other kids imitating me. My mother was more upset about my ripped pants than hearing about my run-in, so I had to tell her what happened twice.
After yelling at me about the impossibility of mending my pants, she helpfully mentioned that if I just prayed for this misguided “Shears child,” Jesus would protect me.
Maybe, but just for backup, I asked my father how he handled bullies when he was young. Big mistake. Rule #1 of Parent/Adolescent Relations is: Never ever reveal anything dicey about your youth to your children. They hear you swiped a candy bar, and pretty soon there’s a phone call from the local convenience store. And you really couldn’t swat them because, well, you’d done it too. My father knew that rule, so he danced around the bullying topic and claimed he didn’t remember.
That didn’t mean he didn’t try to help. He came home one night with a box labelled “Father and Son Training Gloves”, which had a cartoon of a boy knocking his father three feet into the air, red stars shooting from his head. For a whole hour he taught me how to punch and parry. The problem was he didn’t know how to do it himself and kept getting distracted. It wasn’t his fault, there was no instruction manual. Soon the lesson turned into the two of us rolling around on the floor, giggling like dorks. I learned zilch and the gloves went back to the store the next day. Boxing gloves were useless in a fight anyway; you couldn’t even put them on by yourself.
I did try my mother’s prayer remedy. Once. “It’s not working,” I told her later. “Well, obviously you’re not praying hard enough,” she said. “I’ve seen you in church, monkeying around during the Apostles Creed. God needs to take you seriously before you’re deserving of his help.”
So God let Dickie chase me around mailboxes and fences, and once an entire house, because I monkeyed around in church when I should have been reciting that long long prayer?
One day, Dickie mussed up my hair on the bus ride to school. It was his new game of torment and it continued every morning for a month. To muss up hair so painstakingly crafted into a wave or curlicue, then greased down with Vitalis, was an insult to my cool guy image. A blow to my twitching masculinity, a symbolic kick in my balls.
It was a challenge that couldn’t go unanswered.
I had to do something. Luckily the solution was in my briefcase squirreled right between two schoolbooks.
Back in the fifties, comic books contained ads for amazing products: a “Throw Your Voice” ventriloquist kit, “Sea Monkeys ” (brine shrimp) you could grow in your own bedroom, x-ray glasses I could probably see Mary Joyce Carol’s underpants with, a Polaris Nuclear Sub, and the mightiest piece of merchandise of all: the Charles Atlas DYNAMIC-TENSION® SYSTEM of Health, Strength and Physique Building. I had the five dollars from my paper route and I actually qualified, weighing 97 pounds and being a weakling. I ripped off the back cover of my Adventures of Superman comic book and went for it. Charles Atlas would make me so strong Dickie wouldn’t dare mess with me.
Happily, it arrived in June, after school had let out. I had all summer to bulk up my bod before encountering my adversary. I grunted and strained for two months, following Charles Atlas’s isometric exercises like he was a personal trainer living in my bedroom. My muscles weren’t getting much bigger, but they definitely started hardening up. I could tell.
The first day of school arrived and I saw Dickie from the back, standing at the bus stop. I grabbed him in a crushing bear hug. In about four seconds, he brushed me off like a sneaky walking leaf insect and pinned me to the ground. “Watch it, Bates,” is all he said. I later found out that isometric exercises only work so much. Six weeks and you’re done. According to an article I’d read recently, the isometric effect paled when compared to “lifting weights at a gym for two years straight.” And there were no small town gyms back then. There weren’t even karate dōjōs until twenty years later.
The course was a bust. I was so pissed I returned the booklet for the money back guarantee but never saw my five dollars again. I didn’t send for anything again until Amazon opened shop forty years later.
Back to Gussie’s Boy Scout crisis. He wasn’t the brightest kid in school, having been held back in the fifth grade for not learning subtraction. One day after a scout meeting, I heard Dickie ask him if he wanted to go to Liggett’s Drug for an ice cream. “Can’t. Got too much reading to do.” I later told this to my mother, and she found it hilarious. She barely had enough time to read and when she did my father got jealous of whatever book she held in her hands. In bed.
What he lacked in scholarship, Gussie made up for in fighting skills. I’d heard stories that he once beat a kid senseless. That was the word used. Senseless. I found the expression both perplexing and a little silly. Which of the five senses was the kid now without. Vision? Smell? All five? We never found out who he was, but never doubted the story. An ironclad rule of those times was rumors are always true. Dance studio owner Dorothy Darling paid the boys to dance with her curly-haired daughter Vickie. Nancy Lake’s boyfriend hanged himself trying to impress her with his muscular neck muscles. Jimmie Burke jabbed a kid’s eye with a dirty fingernail and it got infected and had to be taken out. Nobody asked for proof. Why would you?
If Gussie had knocked someone senseless, then there was obviously some poor kid walking around without any senses. “Holy shit! Really?” was the only possible response.
Now as I looked at him struggling to button his too-tight shirt, I wondered if he could do thirty push-ups. He probably could, and do them so quickly Murray might double the amount in spite. What made him the way he was? Did the communists force him to do thirty push-ups as torture? Or was it five hundred?
Suddenly Gussie looked at me with such distress and bewilderment that I slid right and helped him button his shirt.
Just in time. Murray was telling the next kid over, “Do something about those shoes, tenderfoot. Next time I wanna see my reflection in them. Or it’s hit the floor for you.”
After we fell out for pup-tent practice and neckerchief-slider carving, a grinning Gussie came over and patted me on the shoulder. “Thank you!” His cousin Dickie Shears looked on and said nothing, but his mouth stayed open for a whole minute.
I briefly entertained the prospect of becoming actual friends with Gussie and helping him out with his homework, but it proved unnecessary. The next day the bullying stopped. Just like that, like it never happened. Dickie was purged from my life, permanently. He probably never even approached me again, but damned if I can remember.
But bullying wasn’t over. Far from it.