You may not believe what I’m about to tell you, and I wouldn’t blame you. I have trouble believing it myself, nearly sixty years later.
I hadn’t escaped the Black Forest of Bullies yet. Dickie Shears had been out of my life for less than a month, Paul Dabuse only a week, and one day Jimmie Bork appeared. Suddenly my life started feeling like the skeleton fight in Jason and the Argonauts (1963). No sooner did I lop off the head of one snarling skeleton when another showed up to stab wildly at me.
There had to have been something about me that attracted these hoods.
Jimmy was a burly working-class kid who always arrived at school with wrinkly clothes and dirty hands. According to him, after one teacher turned him in for general messiness, he told vice principal Picard that there was no use washing his hands because they just got dirty again, so why bother? Picard couldn’t have loved the job of hygiene enforcement, so he transferred him to the homeroom of Mr. John Silvernail, a lean athletic man who was stricter than any of the women teachers. You didn’t do your homework, blackboard-eraser-clapping duty for you. Outdoors. In the winter.
But whatever task Silvernail thought up for Jimmy, it still didn’t work. He kept showing up grubby. Worse, he latched onto me as an object for torment. His favorite tactic was to bump into me and say “’scuse me Bates!” This got him off the hook when the hall monitor, usually some weary teacher, caught him: “I said ‘scuse me!'” A couple of times when he did it in the lunch line, I’d usually drop something off my tray (once the whole thing). The previous day he poured milk on my Welch rarebit, which was hard enough to get down because it was soggy to start with. It was the nastiest cafeteria food ever devised at Great Oak School. Gloppy cheese on Nabisco Waverly Wafer crackers.1 The cheese sauce could have been Velveeta mixed with egg yolks and … what else? “Horse piss,” said Billy Baert2. Right, horse piss and a tablespoon of salt. Per serving.
Jimmy hadn’t attacked me yet, but was veering dangerously close. Any day he’d corner me in back of school and make good his threat to knock my teeth down my throat. So now I had to do something about him too. Running away was always an option, I was faster than him, but I couldn’t depend on it. He could easily jump me from behind like some giant troll lurking under a bridge.
Luckily my new friend Steve Demetrios knew how to box. Well, not that lucky. When I asked him to teach Jimmy a lesson for me, he said, “Hey man, can’t fight your battles for you.”
“So teach me how to box, then.”
He still refused. I thought it was because he wanted me to work out my own style through dedication and gumption, but that never happened except in The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp. Now I realize he probably just didn’t know how to teach anybody anything.
He did tell me about the Friday night fights though.
“When are they on?” I said.
“Friday, you dumb ass.”
“No, I mean what time? “
He shrugged. “Watch ’em. You might learn something.”
The next night it was the Featherweight Championship of the World fight (or a newsreel of the previous year’s, no way of telling). One fighter, Willie Pep, punched so fast and had such perfect footwork, I couldn’t take my eyes off him.3 He won the fight in three rounds. He just wore his opponent down.
In that one hour, I knew what I had to do to beat Jimmy Bork.
In junior high, secrets have a short lifespan and then they usually die grisly deaths, thanks to the rumor mill. When girls left school for several months, it meant only one thing, that they’d gone to some “home for unwed mothers,” had put the baby up for adoption, and then would return the next year. Maybe. And when an older teacher was absent for an extended period, requiring a revolving door of substitutes, we all knew she was a goner. Of course few could resist turning it up a notch. The older teacher had the kind of cancer that ate up your face. The girl who was sent away gave birth to a kid with pointy alien ears. That one always bothered me. If the kid had pointy ears, how could you prevent the other kids from making fun of him? Maybe he could wear a special hat to cover up the pointy ears. But then how would he take a shower in gym class? And of course a hat like that would get swiped really quickly at my school. And have to be replaced. Frequently. And the ears would be revealed in all their pointy splendor. I suppose he could pretend he was a magic elf and scare the hell out of his tormentors, like Jenny did with her Indian tricks. Ugh! Jenny. I didn’t even want to think about her.
Rumors could be confusing, but the basic truth was there, if you scratched deeply enough.
Paul Dabuse was indeed absent from school for a good reason, and rumors soon erupted like a stepped-on Testors glue tube. One was leukemia, which was causing him to waste away to a stick figure. Another claimed he’d gotten smacked by a train on the B&M line while responding to a dare. Religious kids launched a tale that the devil had come for his soul, like Don Juan. We soon found out what it really was. His minion, Timmy Nurdan, came clean, with some afterschool persuasion from me, Benji, and Steven Wright. Apparently Paul’s father, who’d been notified each time Paul had been slapped into detention (school policy), decided his bellicose son was hurting business. Any day now he might beat up the son of a prospective home buyer, so he dragged him on a Northeast road trip to – military schools!
According to Timmy, they toured Franklin Military Academy in . . . “somewhere” (Richmond, Virginia). Recently I checked the school‘s website and found out that this fine institution starts at sixth grade and “offers students a strict regimented military style discipline program. ” Timmy said they also went to “some religious school in New York.” It must have been this one: Christian Brothers Academy in Albany, New York. Recently “ranked the sixth best military school in America,” it’s known for its “heavy emphasis on military-style leadership development.” It didn’t matter that the Dabuses weren’t Catholic; his dad made him listen to their pitch anyway. There was some third school, but Timmy couldn’t remember. At each academy, they filled out long applications. Finally Timmy revealed that what had really set Mr. Dabuse off: those long-distance phone calls his wayward son had made to “someone out west.” Of course, the more Paul pleaded his innocence the deeper he sank.
“Don’t tell him I told you,” Timmy said. “He’ll kill me.”
Paul had just painfully learned Channing Johnson’s “First Rule Of War Between Parents and Kids.” If some incident falls between the region of you vigorously denying it and them vividly imagining you doing it, give up. You’re a dish rag in an oil spill. Nothing you can do will have any impact.
I was glad we extracted this info, but it came with a price. I laughed a bit too heartily about Paul’s journeys up and down the coast, so Timmy spat on my shoe, the little shit. And it was a really bad spit, a lunger. My fight with him didn’t amount to much, I just wrestled him to the ground and stuck his ear in the mud. Was it my fault I didn’t see Picard advancing at a businesslike clip?
“Uh oh. That’s going on their permanent record,” said Lois Howell, as we got dragged past her and her klatch of snoots. “No college is ever gonna take them.”
Picard had a tactic for breaking up fights: collar the kid who was winning. Since I was obviously that person, I had to write the punishment essay. It was entitled “Reform School, The First Stop to Prison.” Timmy got out of jail free because he said he’d just been protecting a child in the special needs class4 from my taunts, and what was so bad about that? He should be getting a medal. Pickard believed him and rewarded him with a thin smile. What I learned from this incident was to not to fight in public or you’ll get caught. Either do it behind something huge like the Great Oak tree or do it off school grounds.
Anyway, Paul reappeared a week later in a vastly changed state. Seeing all those military school kids so impeccably dressed must’ve impressed him, because suddenly he was working full-time on his image. He buttoned down his collar and spit-shined his shoes and even attached metal cleats to them, so you could hear him clicking down the hall with a steady tick tick tick like the crocodile who’d swallowed the clock in Peter Pan. He started combing his hair like Beaver Cleaver’s brother Wally (Tony Dow) in a D.A. style5.
He bought a new belt with a wolf’s head buckle (we called it “the pooch”) and put flaming skull decals on his bicycle, refusing to tell us were he got them.
“Probably from a Sugar Smacks box,” said Benjy Hall.
Plus he no longer picked fights, which came as only a slight surprise.
“Doesn’t want to get his shoes dirty,” said Steven Wright. “Hey, I wouldn’t either.”
Or it was possible his father’d cut a deal with him: “No military school for you and no fighting from you,” but who can know? Somebody said he couldn’t handle bullying and slicking his hair back at the same time. Might have been me, I don’t remember.
Next Monday morning I was late to Mr. Crocker’s civics class a whole three minutes. But I escaped detection. Other kids might have had to wear “Johnny Come Lately” signs (personally designed by Crocker) around their necks for the whole class. Or stand in the left corner behind his desk for ten to twenty minutes. But I evaded punishment because something else was going on.
Something far more important.
“I see another dress code violation,” said Crocker.
He was particularly hard-assed about dress codes, which got violated daily without the school walls crumbling down. If your shirt was untucked, he’d call you to the front of the class, and with his blackboard pointer, show you exactly where.
“Now tuck it in and get back to your seat. Next time it’s detention.” Or something like that. It hadn’t happened to me. Yet.
“Miss Brayson, come to the front please.”
Uh oh, this could be good. Just last week Roberta Brayson was hauled in front of class for chewing gum. Crocker made her take out the wad and wear it on the end of her nose for the rest of the class. She stood up and took a few steps.
“That skirt looks a little too short for a young lady like you to wear. Come closer, please.”
“Awww, Mr. Crocker.” She hesitated but he urged her forward with his crooked forefinger.
“You know the drill by now. Down on your knees.” It’s true, she’d misbehaved before, and each time it got my attention. She walked slowly to the front of the room and knelt down on the floor, in the area to the right of Crocker’s desk. She stood up straight, facing him as he looked down at her.
“Unfortunately I can see your knees again, Miss Brayson. And a couple of inches above them, for that matter. According to official Great Oak School dress code, your skirt should be touching the floor.”
Roberta’s upper lip quivered and it looked like she was about to cry. But to her credit, she held it together and refused to crack.
I continued watching from my position at the edge of the classroom’s open door. I was waiting for Crocker to turn around so I could scoot to my seat unnoticed.
“This time I’m going to have to write you up. This outfit of yours is not conducive to a classroom environment and it’s high time your parents knew about it.”
He turned around to fetch what we all knew was coming. The dreaded pad of pink slips.
I slipped to my desk and encountered a huge wad of pre-chewed Bazooka bubble gum on my chair. 6 Immediately I figured out who’d done it.
“Pick it up, Bork” I whispered to the kid sneering in back of me.
“You wish. Who’s gonna make me?”
He had me there. It’d be just like him to start a fight in the middle of class and get us both sent to detention. I didn’t touch the gum, but instead sat on the edge of my chair the rest of the period. On the way out I muttered, “After school. Back of the Great Oak.”
Then there was a sudden schedule conflict. At the end of class, Mr. Crocker said he had to see me after school. Oh boy. Now what was I supposed to do? Could he have seen me sneak to my desk? Or maybe it was because I’d said that President Eisenhower should grow a beard like Benjamin Harrison had, to distract from his bald head. Such disrespect got too many laughs for me not to get in trouble. Deep inside I knew I should cut back on the wisecracks, but I really couldn’t stop myself. So I spent the next two hours worrying about how to wriggle out of it.
When I showed up, Crocker knocked me on my ass when he said, “I’ve been witnessing some roughhousing going on in the lunch line between you and another student. Just yesterday in fact. What’s that all about?”
The only thing to do about student-teacher conferences was to get them over with as soon as possible. Evade everything. Admit nothing. Lie if necessary. I didn’t mind doing it when Crocker was concerned, because he was known as a bit of a hard ass.
Now I was on the hot seat7 in front of him and didn’t quite know how to squirm off.
“Don’t know,” I said with my best perplexed look. “Somebody must have bumped into me by mistake.”
Crocker was tall and either very strong or just on the verge of overweight. He had constant trouble with his tie and white collar. He was always jutting his chin forward, like he had to escape the confines of his collar, popping off a button if necessary, or he’d choke. “Well, that’s not exactly true, is it? I’ve seen it occur more than once lately.”
Right, like every day. “I don’t know. Kids are always bumping into each other. I don’t know who was banging into me yesterday. I was, like, standing in line reading my social … social studies book for the test.” He sort of smirked and cocked his head like my dog did when she heard me imitating a kitten. I didn’t care whether he believed me or not. I wasn’t going to let something like grim cold truth stand in the way of my “rendezvous with destiny.”
“Is Mr. Bork bothering you?”
Mister? What a joke. He was about as far away from being a mister as Snidely Whiplash was on “Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties.” And of course he was bothering me. And was I gonna do something about it in five minutes, if he’d just let me out of here? I sure as hell was. Well, maybe. But I shrugged as if it were no big deal.
“Shenanigans like this are very disruptive to a learning environment. Am I going to have to report this to Vice Principal Picard?”
Now that carried some weight, because I’d just had that run-in with Picard the week before. Did Crocker know this? Did they have some special teachers room where they all conferred and cackled about “problem students?” Had I turned into one of those?
“No,” I said to Crocker. “It won’t happen again, I promise.”
Now what made me say that? It was the first time I’d ever tried the “tell-him-what-he-wants-to-hear” tactic, and it worked. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t true. It amazed me and I filed it away for future use.
All the time Crocker was talking to me I figured Bork was getting madder and madder waiting for me behind the towering Great Oak tree. Did getting mad make you stronger or more reckless in your fighting style? I had no idea, but I was about to find out.
I looked at my watch and we’d – actually he’d – been talking for ten whole minutes. Then I realized he hadn’t noticed me so I did it again.
“Am I keeping you from something Mr. Bates?”
“Yes, Mr. Crocker,” I said. “An important appointment. My mother’s taking me to the doctor’s. For . . . well I . . . I’d rather not talk about it.”
“All right,” he said, “off you go. I better not see you in here again though.”
What I said must’ve been what they called a “white lie.” It was one that didn’t hurt anybody, unlike a black lie that resulted in someone robbing a bank or getting stabbed. That could get you a stint in purgatory for at least 17 years (even if you confessed it and did huge amounts of penance).
Bork was smoking when I met him in back of the Great Oak tree. Same brand as Paul Dabuse I think, but he probably picked his up off the ground.
“You’re late,” he said with a Blackboard Jungle smirk. “I’m going to have to pound you extra hard for that.”
In three seconds he was on me and I took a slug to the cheek. It stung a little, like the time Geraldine Gomulka slapped me with all her might. I put up my guard and deflected the next one. A few seconds after that I let loose with the “fast hands” punching technique I’d learned from Willie Pep. Bork sure didn’t expect it and I completely overwhelmed him. Toward the end, I turned into kind of a madman, punching real hard because I wasn’t just punching him, I was punching Dabuse with his sneering taunting lip and all his challenges and insults, and wiping out the mornings I dreaded going to school because I knew some thug could leap out and whale on me while the other kids smirked and cheered. I showered him with punches up and down his body and I flashed on the time I ran up and down the schoolyard from the enraged Shears and Bork.8
Unable to get in another punch, Bork held up his hands about two minutes into it and said “Hold it, Bates! I’ve had enough.”
I walked home from school smiling like I’d just gotten away with something, and in a way I had. It was my first victory against the forces of darkness – well, maybe just the forces of overcast– and it felt great. I’d finally figured out that fighting was one of those things you just had to learn in junior high, like fixing things, swimming or dancing, and so what if I couldn’t dance yet? I probably could learn that from the TV too. But only if Willie Pep were teaching it.