Bullyland, Part I: Fast Learner

IN WHICH I learn one way of dealing with a bully.

The solution to three years of Dickie Shears whaling on me was right in front of me and I wasn’t getting it.

Yes, there were other bullies who’d plagued me throughout my life, and each tormented me in his own way, but Dickie was one of the worst. I categorize bullies into three breeds of insects: a greenhead fly that takes a bite out of your flesh, leaving blood trickling down your back; a deer fly, a greenhead wannabe that doesn’t hurt as much but is more persistent; and a mosquito that pierces your flesh at outdoor barbecues, making you run straight toward the screened-in porch. 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. He was like one of the villains that the avengers would have to fight, a combination of greenhead, deer fly, and mosquito.

Let me explain.

The Washington Post reported that 25% of school-age boys say they were bullied 1 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 at once 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. She was a friend of the family who once said, “Why Peter Bates! What would your Aunt Carolyn say?” And what about the time Geraldine Gomulka slapped me off my chair 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 I? No, but I was. Ridiculous as this sounds, I had no idea how to handle him.

Dickie Shears was a dirty-blond kid 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 a 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 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 so she’d realize I’d been hurt.

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 he would, but just for backup, I asked my father how he’d handled bullies when he was young. No way was he going to tell me. Rule #1 of Parent/Adolescent Relations is: Never ever reveal anything dicey about your own youth to your children. If your child hears you once swiped a candy bar, pretty soon you the parent will get a phone call from your local convenience store ratting your kid out. And as that parent, you really couldn’t swat the kid because, well, maybe 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 labeled Father and Son Training Gloves, and the box cover had a cartoon of a boy knocking his father three feet into the air, red stars shooting from his head. For a whole hour my father 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’d 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. 2 God needs to take you seriously before you’re deserving of his help.”

“The Apostles Creed!”

“Come on, let’s hear it: I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. . ..”

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. He would rake his grimy fingernails across my skull and sometimes smoosh my hair into a lopsided peak. 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 squirreled between two schoolbooks in my briefcase.

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 Roberta Brayson’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, as a 97-pound weakling, actually qualified. 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, my kit 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 my personal trainer and lived in my bedroom. My muscles weren’t getting much bigger, but they were definitely starting to harden up. I could tell.

Typical Charles Atlas Ad

On the very first day of school, I saw Dickie talking to some kid at the bus stop. I snuck up from behind and grabbed Dickie in a crushing bear hug. In about four seconds, he brushed me off like a walking-leaf insect he’d suddenly noticing moving on his sleeve. In five seconds, he’d pinned me to the ground. “Watch it, Bates,” is all he said. It seems that isometric exercises only strengthen you for six weeks and you’re done. The effect pales compared with lifting weights at the gym for two years straight. And by the way, what gym? There were none nearby.

Walking Leaf Insect

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 away for anything again until Amazon opened shop forty years later.

Suddenly I got lucky. Very lucky. It was like I’d yanked the very present I’d been hoping for right out of my school’s Christmas party grab bag. It happened at a Boy Scout troop meeting. The evening had started out badly.

Without asking, they stuck all thirty of us Troop 16 scouts in the shabby basement of the First Congregational Church of Danvers. The heat ran hot all summer and was barely there in winter. I still shiver when I remember that. Even the American flag didn’t look right—perpetually wrinkled, taken down and folded too many times into the three-cornered hat configuration. This was practice, in case a Troop 16 scout were to suddenly drop dead on forced march through the Danvers woods. In which case we would need to present the flag to the grieving mother.

One cold October day our Scoutmaster George Murry, an ex-marine sergeant, strutted four patrols away from the one I was in, Patrol 7. At five feet eight, Murray must have been twenty pounds overweight. He was seventy percent bald (though only in his late 30s), an embarrassment he’d tried and failed to cover with his Boy Scout garrison cap. He never cracked a smile or chuckled over a Boy’s Life “Think & Grin” joke. His communication skills were nil. Like the standard poodle who lived across the street from us, he barked at me and everyone else. I may have been wary of him then, but I sure as shootin’ didn’t envy his job. He was marooned 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. I noticed that our patrol leader, tall, lanky, wiry Paul “Gussie” Gusterton, was frantically trying to button the collar of his uniform. I knew that if he failed, he wouldn’t be able to attach his neckerchief properly. It would look . . . sloppy. And there would be consequences.

I’d been in Troop 16 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 “Leave it to Beaver” and Beaver had done something he shouldn’t have or had forgotten to do something he should’ve.

Gussie wasn’t the brightest kid in school, having been held back in the fifth grade. What he lacked in scholarship, Gussie made up for in pugilistic skills. I’d heard stories that he once beat a kid
senseless, an expression I found both perplexing and a little silly. Which of the five senses was the kid now without. Vision? Smell? All five? I never found out who’d said Gussie had done that senseless thing, but I never doubted the story. An ironclad rule was that rumors are always true. Like how our town’s dance-studio owner Dorothy Darling had paid the boys to dance with her curly-haired daughter Vickie. How Nancy Lake’s boyfriend had hung himself trying to impress her with his muscular neck. Or how Jimmie Bork had 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 they?

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.

Paul “Gus” Gusterton graduation photo

Now as I looked at Gussie struggling to button his 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 Murray the way he was? Had the Communists forced 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 over and fed the button through the hole for him. The shirt collar was a little small and he gagged when I yanked it tighter, but we got it done.

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 whittling, a grinning Gussie came over and patted me on the shoulder. “Thank you!” Gussie’s cousin looked on and said nothing, but his mouth stayed open for a whole minute. Turns out, his cousin was Dickie Shears! For me, Christmas had come early.

I briefly entertained the prospect of actually becoming friends with Gussie and helping him with his homework, but it proved unnecessary. The next day the bullying stopped. Just like that, like it’d 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.

Dickie Shears graduation photo

“. . . the Twist, the Stomp, the Mash Potato too . . .”

Chris Montez3 had it right. “Any old dance that you wanna do.” When I was 13 at Holton-Richmond Junior High2, attending class in wooden desks with dried-up ink wells, I used to go to the school dances that happened third Friday each month. They were called “mixers,” because that’s what the girls and boys were supposed to do. Mix with adults gaping on. Of course not many of us did. The concept of a sock hop, with minimal supervision and an outta sight disk jockey, was yet to be in Danvers, Massachusetts.

Teen Dancer (photographer unknown)

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