If I thought that my young childhood fights and bullies were rough, I was about to find out that there was a whole new level in store for me. Junior high school is when kids really start pushing their boundaries, and when they start separating into groups. Now, popular movies of the time would have had me believe that it was as simple as being labeled either a nerd or a jock. And some of these movies would have had me believe that it was as simple as giving money to a popular girl to be able to change which group I belonged to. And maybe one of these characters made it seem like you could just give a sensible speech to mindless bully jocks and they would slow clap you into their good graces. None of this was true. Especially the part when the nerdy lawnmower driver went on to be a McDreamy
doctor. No, junior high school was a veritable landmine of bully opportunities for me, and high school wasn’t much better. I left off last post with my family in a small upstate New York village, surrounded by woods and me going to a tiny kindergarten through 12th grade school. My dad was recruiting for the army during those years, working in Oneonta, but he had grown tired of recruiting and wanted to get back to real military life. And my folks missed Germany, so back we went!…
Welcome to the Jungle It Gets Worse Here Everyday.
You Learn to Live Like an Animal in the Jungle Where We Play.
I wrote before about how it was a bit of a culture shock moving to the small village of Morris after having spent my eleven years, to that point, moving frequently from one city to the next. But after three years of the slow, quiet life in the woods up on Harris Hill Road, I wasn’t prepared for the culture shock I would experience when we reentered real military life and moved to Frankfurt, Germany. My dad had already been in Germany for four months before the rest of us came over (it takes a while for family housing to open up), and I remember arriving on that first day. There were several military housing complexes, and we started off in one called Platen, but they’re all pretty much the same. Several large, long buildings, separated by small parking areas between them. The buildings had three doors to enter and each door accessed a set of eight apartments. The apartments at the top of the building were “temp” housing. It’s where families would start off until something else opened up, presumably because temp housing wasn’t very desirable. The ceiling was low and slanted and there was only a tiny window in the living/kitchen area, as if we were in an attic. There was a very long hall of wooden flooring with eight rooms- four on each side, exactly across from each other and exactly the same size. It was a cold hall with cold rooms in the winter. There were old-school radiators. I’ve previously posted my thoughts on those deadly contraptions. The hall was kind of creepy. There was an echo down the hall; maybe because most of the rooms were empty. When you looked down it from the living area, it conjured images from The Shining. But then, most long halls do that for me because that movie pretty much screwed up my mind. If somebody wanted into the
building, they would have to buzz an apartment. If you were buzzed, you were supposed to ask through the intercom who it was before letting them in the building. This was my new life.. again.
It must have been about Christmas time (or maybe we were celebrating late as a family), as my pop had a Christmas tree up with presents under it. He obviously put in some effort for us, and I was happy to see him, but I seem to remember being too caught up in my own world of thoughts to show proper appreciation. I do remember him excitedly telling us about this great new band he was into and then playing Beds Are Burning by Midnight Oil. And I remember wondering what Germany had done to my dad and hoping that it wouldn’t do the same to me and make me like that music.
So anyway, I eventually had to go to school. I don’t know what I was expecting, exactly, but I don’t think I could have been prepared for what I was in for. As I mentioned, at Morris there was one school for all grades. So even though I spent 7th grade and half of 8th grade there, it didn’t feel to me like I was in junior high. It was the same school that I spent 5th and 6th grade in. Also, I think that having kids younger than you around and kids older than you around grounds you in a way. There are role models above you and you serve as role models for the younger ones. That’s not to say that the Morris kids didn’t get into trouble. There was mischief aplenty, and the teachers thought our class was especially bad, it seemed. But there’s a pretty big difference between small town trouble and big city trouble.
The first thing that opened my eyes to the trouble I was in for was the bus ride. It was insane. Sometimes I think my mind must be exaggerating the memories I have, but in this case I don’t think so. The bus was ridiculously loud. The kids were yelling so loudly that I was embarrassed for how that bus represented Americans. The bus driver was German, and he didn’t ever attempt to control the crowd, although you could tell he was very disapproving. Actually, I do remember him stopping the bus once when the kids started rocking the bus from the inside while he was driving. No matter the collective mood of the bus, it was always yelling. Loud laughter. Loud singing. Loud fighting… Oh yes, there were fights. Frequently. I remember one fight, in particular, involving a group of girls. In the middle of the group, two girls were especially nasty; gripping each others’ hair and slamming each other into the sides of the bus. They broke a window. That was the other time the driver stopped, that I recall. It was only a matter of time, I suppose, before I would get victimized on that bus of doom; but I’ll get to that later. First let me describe my first impression of the school.
Frankfurt American Junior High School was…. well, it was a concrete jungle. It was blacktop and concrete with a brick building all surrounded by a chain link fence. Or maybe a brick wall? The fence/wall was supposed to be meant to protect us, as the reality of military life overseas can be unsettling at times (we practiced “bomb” drills more than fire drills). That fence/wall may have been more meant to protect the surrounding populous. It looked, and often felt like a prison.
The place reeked of hormones. Groups of kids were in their own nooks and crannies representing their cliques. I mentioned earlier that kids start separating into groups at this age. Apparently the groups were very specific at this school. The first day I got there, a couple of girls came up to me and asked, “Are you a Rocker or a Souler?”… I wanted to reply, “Why, I’m not a witch at all. I’m Dorothy Gale, from Kansas!”… but I thought that would be a bad start at this place. One of the girls said, “Look at him. He’s definitely a Rocker.” I did have long hair and a jean jacket at the time, so I guess that categorized me simply enough for them. I went on to discover that there was also a Skater group, but I guess I was obviously not one of them, as that was never asked. My time as a Rocker was very short-lived. As soon as they discovered that I didn’t prefer to skip school to go smoke or participate in acts of rebellion, they pretty much ignored me. It’s funny, I discovered the following handbook from my memories box from the high school I would go to the next year:
Of the thirteen people illustrated on this book, twelve of them are cool. You’ve got the male and female athletes (jocks are always cool); there’s an mc and a couple of other hip hop dudes (super cool at that time); there’s the rocker dude (cool); the preppy socialite girl and the cheerleader (always popular); there’s a surfer dude (totally gnarly); there’s a photographer (artsy cool); the drummer dude has ripped sleeves and a sideways hat (the cool kids in band); there’s that skater dude (cool)….. and then there’s THAT guy. You see him. The kid with the book. Why, that’s a nerd. And nothing about him is cool. Of the four people with glasses, his are the only ones that look uncool. Of all of the hairstyles, his is the lamest. His is the only complexion that isn’t flawless. Of all of the poses, his is the… uncoolest. Heck, they even separated him from all of the rest, pushing him up close, while the rest sit back in cool poses together. And maybe the worst part is that they make him look like a stupid nerd! He doesn’t look inquisitive, he looks confused!.. sigh. Anyway, take away the glasses and the tie and that kid was probably the one I most related to.
Now that I’ve sort of described the atmosphere, let me get to those fights and bullies.
Don’t You Dare Look Back, Just Keep Your Eyes On Me
Despite my puny physique, less-than-stellar reflexes, and relatively inferior coordination when compared to athletes, I loved to play sports. I don’t know why. Every once in awhile, I would play a good game of basketball or throw an excellent pass or juke somebody somewhere, so I guess I loved to play for those moments; however few and far between those moments happened to come. At FAJHS, a group of boys played football out on the blacktop during recess. I didn’t have a lot of respect from the boys, initially. I remember during the first day of gym class, the gym teacher in the locker room asking me to take off my shirt (maybe for a jersey, or something?); anyway, the other boys were very vocal about my scrawniness when I took off my shirt. Some chuckles; some “Daaang”s; some “Psh”s. The boys though little of me. Well, I think I exceeded at least the very low expectations they had of me, because I was becoming a little less loathed by some of the boys during games. But there was one boy that continued to have no respect for me, and made quite a show of it.
We usually had one boy play quarterback for a series and then whoever had called next would play for the next series for the team. Well, I had called next for a series and was denied the ball by a boy. I don’t remember his name, but he was very strong-looking and not very friendly-looking. He looked like an angry Apollo Creed without a mustache. I believe his contention was that there was only enough time left in the recess for one more series and he was going to quarterback it. My contention was that I had called next. I hate that I can’t remember the exact words exchanged during some of these confrontations in my youth that led to escalations in hostility and my impending doom. I think that I must have overestimated the respect I thought I had gained with the other boys and that may have been what emboldened me to exchange verbal sassiness with this angry boy. What happened to end the confrontation certainly destroyed any respect the other boys had for me, and, frankly it destroyed any respect I had for myself. In a gesture of exasperation, I turned away at one point while making a sound and a face of frustration. As I was about to turn back with my next argument, he said, “Don’t you look back here.” There was warning in that voice. He went on to suggest that my looking back would result in me getting rendered unconscious by his fist. I froze halfway through my turn. My mind was rapidly calculating my options. None of them were good. Even though I wasn’t looking at him right then, I could feel his threatening gaze upon me and picture the angry face that, just a few seconds ago, I was allowed to look at directly. My options were: 1) Don’t turn around- This might save me from getting punched, but would lose me my turn at playing quarterback, and make me look scared and wimpy. 2) Turn around- This would run me the risk of getting punched, but I will have stood up for myself and at least give myself a chance to defend myself. But he was very strong and angry, and I had almost no doubt that he would carry out his threat right then and there. The blacktop did not look very comfortable, and the image of my unconscious face hitting it was quite unappealing to me. Yes, he might get in trouble if he punched me, but then that would just make him my new bully from then on. Maybe if I just walked away….
I shook my head and walked away. “That’s what I thought!” was heard behind me. Any respect I had earned from the boys, was certainly flushed right then. It was the punch that was never thrown, and I hate how much I regret that decision to this day. I don’t think I have ever suffered a more emasculating moment. I used to replay what might have happened if I had turned around. Some simulations of that hypothetical event had me getting immediately socked, barely before I even saw the fist coming. Some had me getting a punch in. Some had me getting pulverized as he relentlessly kicked me while I was down. In none of them could I imagine winning that fight. But I still wish I had turned around. It would have been a beating worth taking to preserve my pride. When I saw him in the halls, he always gave me a look like he owned me. And I would be quick to avert my eyes. But at least he never hounded me. I guess there’s that.
Lean On Me When You’re Not Strong and I’ll Be Your Friend
After the blacktop football incident, I had resolved to just keep my head low and try to keep my mouth shut. I was apparently incapable of that. Not too long after I had arrived at this place (maybe a few weeks?), I noticed a new boy on the bus. He was tall with slicked back wet hair and a 49ers Starter jacket. Maybe it was the jacket that caught my attention, as my favorite team, the Bears, were also good at the time and had had some good clashes in recent years. The boy was very quiet, but something compelled me to try to strike up a conversation with him. He was resistant to exchange words. He gave me very brief one-to-two word replies and scarcely bothered to glance in my direction. When he did, his face clearly read, “Dude. I don’t want to talk to you, so please stop bothering me.” I kept bothering him. Over a period of days, his eyes that initially carried warning began to soften. I really don’t know what it was that made me so persistent with this boy. Maybe I saw something that intrigued me, or maybe I just desperately needed a friend. He was new, so if I brainwashed him into liking me before the other boys got to him..?
His name was Ron, and he became my best friend. He later confessed that he would tell his mom about this really annoying kid on the bus whose butt he wanted to kick. So Ron was almost a different story in this blog! Ron and I share some pretty awesome memories together and have enjoyed some crazy adventures. There are some nights that I honestly don’t know how we survived. I wasn’t nearly as adventurous as Ron, so I never would have experienced some of my best memories if not for him. But I include him in this post because of how important he was in my bully story. Ron wasn’t necessarily a great fighter; but he did have his growth spurt early, so he was taller than a lot of other people. Ron had a very powerful stubborn streak. He had an unyielding way of looking at you that let you know he was not going to back down. And he was a fiercely loyal friend. He had my back no matter what. Thanks to my big mouth, Ron found himself having to puff out his chest on multiple occasions. I might feel bad about that, if I didn’t think that Ron actually enjoyed a good scrap now and then.
Ron is important in this post for a few reasons. For one, he deterred many more would-be bullies from beating me up. For another, he is a part of some of these stories because he was there for some of them. And lastly, when discussing this topic with him recently, he reminded me of some bullies I had completely forgotten about. Which is sad. I’ve had so many, I’d forgotten some.
Now that I’ve introduced Ron, let me get back to my bullies. I think next was the bus fight I was in. If you wanna call it that….
Who Are You? Who, Who, Who, Who?
As I mentioned earlier, the bus I rode was pretty typically raucous. But it’s funny- I remember it being relatively calm and quiet on this day. It was the calm before the storm.
I have confessed that most of the situations I had gotten myself into resulted from me opening my mouth and essentially inviting harm unto my body. This was not one of those times. This was a case of a good ol’ bored bully seeking out a wimpy target to practice his ass-kicking on. And Ron was not on the bus at this time. I was minding my own business when I felt something hit the back of my left arm, which was exposed in the bus aisle. I sorta glanced back, thinking little of it, as you pretty much get desensitized to bumping/jostling feelings on the bus. I felt it again. I looked back for a better look this time and saw a boy who obviously targeted me with the small, wadded up paper I saw on the floor. I recognized the boy. He looked kind of like a young Muhammed Ali with slightly slanted eyes and he had an identical twin brother. Their names were Chad and Chet. There was only one of them sitting there looking at me. I remember wondering what the hell I might have done to upset either one of them. I just gave him a dirty look and turned back around. After a minute or two I felt a much harder object hit my arm and it hurt. It was a book. Really pissed off now, I picked the book up and whipped it back at him. It hit his knee and it was everything he was hoping for. He immediately sprang up into a fighting stance, feet staggered and fists up. As soon as his body began to rise, mine automatically sprang up as well. There was no thought in it. I saw him move and I reacted. Unfortunately, that’s as far as my fighting instincts took me. The boy approached me and fired a fast, straight jab to my face. My head snapped back. I saw his fist again. My head snapped back. I saw his fist again. My head snapped back. I saw his fist again. My head snapped back. I saw his fist again. My head snapped back….. Five punches straight to my face. Five times my head snapped back. That was it. That was the fight. I can imagine how absolutely ridiculous it must have looked from one of the other bus rider’s perspectives. It was like Apollo Creed jabbing Rocky over and over again, while Rocky inexplicably kept his hands down and his head repeatedly snapped back. Except I looked way less cool than Rocky. And even dumber. After he punched me five times, it’s like he stopped to see if I would give him anything in return. I remember blinking my eyes a few
times and sort of shaking my head to clear it; realizing that we were at my bus stop; and then grabbing up my backpack and walking off of the bus. I’m not making this shit up. I had just been punched in the face five times, and I turned around and walked off the bus as if nothing had happened. I guess the bus driver wasn’t happy about the whole thing, as the boy was not allowed to ride the bus anymore, apparently. I assume it was disciplinary, anyway, as I doubt he stayed away for fear of my terrifying and imminent retribution. The funniest thing about the whole thing is that to this day I have no idea which of those twins went ahead and punched me in my face those five times that day. I later would come to find a good Nintendo game trading partner in one of those twins, and always wondered if it was the same boy who had punched me. I never could tell them apart and I never asked.
* * * * *
The first two years of high school are mostly a blur for me, in terms of chronology of bully incidents. There were so many that I can’t remember when many of them happened. I remember my sophomore year being pretty terrible, but that was the year my pop was in the Middle East during Desert Storm for seven months, so it was already really stressful because of that. There were lots of bullies too, though. I’m going to cut out some of the lesser incidents and try to only write about the ones that stick out in my mind.
Relax, Don’t Do It
This section is about a small dude named Frankie. I couldn’t think of a lyric that fit this story, so I just picked a song done by a Frankie. Lazy, I know.
So, yeah, Frankie was short. I would most often run into Frankie at the bowling alley during lunch. There was a bowling alley on base, and it was a cool place to go for lunch for a few reasons: 1) It had a video jukebox where we could see semi-recent videos for our favorite popular songs. We didn’t get MTV in Germany, so this was kind of a treat. 2) They made some pretty good greasy pizza. 3) There was a sweet arcade game called Cyber Ball (robots playing football!) that I would regularly challenge Ron to. Any time I would be beating Ron at this game, he would run over to the jukebox and request Heaven is a Place on Earth by Belinda Carlisle, and this would inexplicably turn the game around and he would win. I hated that song. I remember he once requested it to play three times in a row. It was hell.
Another thing about the bowling alley was that it was the only place on base where students could go to smoke and not be harassed. I’m not sure why that was the case, but it naturally led to all the smokers going to the bowling alley for lunch. I can still see some of the girls in my mind, woefully singing along to Every Rose Has Its Thorn while tilting their heads back and blowing plumes of smoke up into the air. I must have really liked that pizza and Cyber Ball, because I’ve never liked the smell of cigarette smoke. It’s funny that I can almost smell the mix of smoke and greasy pizza smell now and it gives me a happy nostalgic feeling, despite it being a really gross smell.
Frankie was one of the smokers. He was a good-looking dude, but he tried too hard. He had brown hair, a brown leather jacket, and facial scruff with too much on his upper lip and he postured a lot. He really wanted you to notice him smoking- placing and removing his cig with great flare most of the time. Also, he was short. I keep mentioning that because it’s the only reason I can think of for why he screwed with me. I was probably half a foot taller than him, but I was so skinny that he could probably take me. I don’t mean to disparage a dude for his lack of height, but we all know that guy who reminds us of a Chihuahua. Too much bark for their small stature. That was Frankie.
In the bowling alley, he never did much more than talk shit and blow smoke in my face. I’m sure I must have said something that instigated him in some way, but I have no memory of what it might have been. Maybe he was just pissed off that he kept having to hear Belinda Carlisle songs, but knew he couldn’t beat up Ron, so he took it out on me. Who knows. It was on the U-bahn (public transit) where Frankie seemed his most menacing. I guess because I was alone at those times. Probably also because I was emboldened a time or two to talk smack back at him at those times. I would often have an inner dialogue about Frankie and how a fight might actually turn out. I remember seeing a taller, skinny dude beat a shorter, stockier dude by using his leverage and length. Of course, that guy probably knew how to fight. One day on the U-bahn, Frankie was losing a verbal sparring contest with me when he strongly implied that he had a knife on him. Now, in my memory, I can see him pulling out a switchblade and showing it to me, but this memory is questionable. I mean, it’s almost cliché: a leather jacket-wearing, slicked back hair-having dude with a cig hanging out of the corner of his mouth pulling out a switchblade. Either way, he took his threat to another level.
I was never physically harmed by Frankie, but whenever he saw me and gave me that dippy smirk, I did get nervous after the knife implication. I was talking to Ron about this just recently and he told me about another aspect of the Frankie situation that I have no memory of. There was a big dude names Marcus that was apparently friendly with Frankie. Ron knew Marcus from the football team and wrestling team. He could have crushed me. Ron told me that Frankie was recruiting Marcus to help kick my ass. Initially when Ron told me this, I was all flattered, thinking that Frankie was too chicken to take me on himself. But then it occurred to me that Marcus was probably just meant to be the Ron neutralizer. Thank goodness it didn’t come to that, because I would have felt bad if Ron had gotten pummeled because of some dude hating me. Oh wait… that did happen….
Do you want to build a snowman?
It doesn’t have to be a snowman.
One winter day, Ron and I were walking home from school when we suddenly found ourselves in a snowball fight with a group of junior high school kids. It started off good-natured, with the younger kids obviously relishing the thought of showing up the high school boys and Ron and I clearly trying to represent the high school with optimal effort. But there were a lot of them. And their numbers grew as others in the area noticed what was going on. I don’t remember exactly how many of them there were, but it was at least 10-15. Against me and Ron. For some reason, some of the junior high kids started taking the whole thing too seriously and were trying their best to hurt us. This, of course, just invoked Ron’s ire and his snowball tosses became more heated and his face became more angry. The boys had us completely surrounded and we were getting pelted from every angle. While kneeling in the snow to pack some ammo, we got rushed and received a mad barrage of close-range snow-tillery upon our bodies and faces. I watched as Ron was on all fours with his head down and one of those shits came over with a large block of ice hoisted high over his head, and he slammed that block down hard right on Ron’s noggin. Ron bounced up, the red anger on his face melting away the cold snow covering it….. Now Ron wasn’t a straight-A student, or anything, but he was at least good enough at math that he went on to be an accountant; so I have to think that he understood the odds when he started talking about kicking some ass to a bunch of kids who would have liked nothing more than to brag about beating up some high schoolers- even if one of them was skinnier than almost all of them. Be that as it may, Ron chose to threaten the boy that had ice-blocked him. I chose the shaming method- attempting to appeal to the humanity of boys that, I should have known from my half a year at that retched junior high school, didn’t exist. But it seemed to work. Well, it must have, because I remember us walking away from that potential train wreck with no punches thrown…… I’m taking the credit here with my shaming. But it was most certainly probably Ron’s scary angry face that saved us. In my next story, our combined idiocy almost got us destroyed again, but Ron’s angry scary face did not save us. In fact, I don’t think I ever remember seeing Ron more afraid than in this instance.
And I ran
I ran so far away.
Prior to the day I’m about to speak of, I had only one other incident that involved non-Americans. It was on a city bus. I had been sitting in the back of the bus and a group of about five Turks came on and all came to the back to sit. They were in their late teens or early twenties and they all turned to look at me. The apparent leader of the group asked me if I was an American. I super-quickly analyzed my answer options: 1) I lie. Maybe try a stupid accent. Hope that they don’t beat me up for looking so obviously American and trying to lie about it with a stupid fake accent. 2) I don’t lie. I say “Yes, I’m an American”, and then resist the urge to sing a patriotic song and worsening the situation. And get beat up. 3) I pretend I can’t hear them. And then I pretend I can’t understand them through their accent. And then I get beat up.
It was a difficult choice. Some of the locals loved Americans. In fact, some were overly eager to demonstrate this. But many others definitely held animosity toward Americans. And Turks were quite notorious for this. I chose to admit that I’m American. I pretty quickly wish I’d chosen option four, where I pretend to faint instead of answering them. I recall being pretty scared as they taunted me and made fun of my look. They easily picked the right American to do that with. There were threatening overtones, but no specific threats. I decided to stay on the bus past my stop in the hopes that they would eventually get off somewhere. I sure as hell wasn’t going to get off and risk them following me out in the open. Every bus or U-bahn stop was pretty far from where you were going. Lots of walking in Germany. They did eventually get off and I was able to exhale, dab the sweat, and be thankful I suffered no physical harm.
But this story isn’t even about that! It’s about the only other time that locals threatened me. The overtones were not subtle. They weren’t even overtones, they were pretty direct. And it wasn’t Turks, it was Germans.
When our time in the temporary housing was up, we moved to another housing area called Von Steuben. It was actually adjacent to Platen, but it was much closer to one of the main streets there outside of the military area. So Ron and I would sometimes go exploring down that street when we’d get bored. One day, while standing on a street corner- we must have been waiting for a street light to change for us to cross, or something- I noticed a group of three German boys standing about fifteen feet away from us. Like the Turkish boys, they were in their late teens or early twenties. They were all tall. The shortest one was as tall as Ron, and Ron was fairly tall for his age. Being a frequent victim of bullying, my guard was usually up around bigger boys. I glanced over and noticed them staring in our direction. I was subtle, but they saw me look. While looking down I saw spit land near our feet. I didn’t hear them spit it, but it might have been muffled by the sound of traffic. Ron was oblivious to all of this, facing the opposite direction and chewing his gum, like he always did. Trying to speak in a voice that was loud enough to get his attention over the traffic, but not loud enough for the other boys to hear, I told Ron that I thought the boys near us had spit at us. And then they did it again. You could hear it and see it. Ever his first impulse, Ron puffed up his chest and faced the boys full on. The boys clearly were banking on that response and didn’t hesitate for one second. They bolted for us.
I will never forget the look on Ron’s face in that instant. His eyes flew open wide and, quicker than I’d ever seen him move, he spun around to run while saying, “Oh shit!”…. and then ran into a street lamp. His gum flew out, but he quickly got around the post and resumed break-neck speed. I was right there with him. There had been times when we had run quickly together. We enjoyed sports. We had run to evade dangerous weather. We had run to catch busses. Most of those times, I remember laughing with him over the situation that had us running so fast. We were not laughing this time. We were hauling ass and we had no idea where we were going. We knew we couldn’t run this fast forever. And I think we both assumed that these kids could catch us, being all tall as they were. Probably a couple/few hundred feet down the sidewalk, we bounded into a pizza place. I can’t remember if we verbally communicated this intent or if we saved the energy talking and just telepathically relayed our intent to each other, but we both flew into this place and watched, gasping for air, as the German boys paced outside. Our hope that they wouldn’t follow us into a public restaurant appeared to be correct. But there they were. Pacing. Waiting. I have no idea how long we waited. At some point, the manager indicated that we had to leave. I had the irrational fear that the boys would eventually come in to the place and explain, in German, to the manager that there was some justifiable reason for them to be chasing us American boys. Neither Ron or I had strong German skills. Thankfully, this did not occur. The boys grew weary of their chase and resumed whatever other hooliganism they had planned for their day. We watched them cross the street and then we waited a while longer. When it became obvious that the manager was not going to tolerate another minute of our presence, we timidly emerged from the building, looked every direction, and then sprinted across the street toward Von Steuben. We did not die that day. I do wish we could have bottled the speed we were able to conjure that day, though. I could have been an Olympian, if someone sent those boys chasing me again.
Put Me In Coach. I’m Ready to Play Today.
I love sports. I think I’ve mentioned that. I’ve also never been really that good at sports. I believe that has also been established. So it may come as no surprise when I state that I was a member of the worst baseball team ever assembled.
I wouldn’t have even heard about the team had we not moved into the Edwards housing area. Someone started a fire in the basement of our Von Steuben building, so many of us had to relocate. We ended up in Edwards. And that is where I encountered the bully that endured longer than any other bully I’ve ever had.
Our team was basically the Bad News Bears. We technically represented Frankfurt, but the school wasn’t affiliated with the team like they were with the other sports. This was some dad, with a son who wanted to pitch baseball, putting out the word that he was assembling a team, and then a ragtag group of dudes meandering onto a field to play. We had to order our own T-shirts and hats. They were bright, canary yellow with royal blue numbers. The hat was just the bright canary yellow with no lettering. We wore whatever blue-colored pants we had. I had a pair of navy sweat pants. We looked ridiculous.
And worse, we played ridiculous. The guys we had who were half decent pitchers all fought not to pitch. They all wanted to play 3rd base. The only one who wanted to pitch was the coach’s son, and he threw like a maniac. He did throw fast, but he might just take your head off. In our first competition, we played a double-header against Heidelberg. We lost the two games by a combined score of about 40-5. The rest of the season was not really any better. The one bright spot was when we played against the number one ranked team (Rhein-Main) and were holding our own against them (I think it was 2-1, or something like that) when the game was called due to worsening weather in one of the middle innings. Our team finished 0-11 with that one unfinished game neither a win or a loss.
Ron and I played center field. We alternated playing it and neither of us was good. We were both slow to react to the ball off the bat, so we usually ended up chasing the ball. None of the parks we played in had a fence, so this sometimes meant chasing the ball really, really far. There were times when we ran so far, that we couldn’t even throw it to the relay. They should have had like two or three relays for us. We also sucked at batting. I was puny, so I couldn’t swing the bat fast enough to hit a decent fast ball. And I had astigmatism and couldn’t see the spin of a ball, so I’d almost always miss on the breaking balls. At some point, I just started swinging as soon as the pitcher released the ball, in the hopes that I would be fast enough to catch a fast ball somewhere in the middle of the plate. It was a pitiful strategy.
Despite our futility, all teams made it into the double-elimination playoff tournament after the season. In the first round, our last-ranked team faced off against Rhein-Main (the team we might have beaten if not for weather, and the number one ranked team). Much to our chagrin, we recognized that Rhein-Main had stacked their team for the tourney. They had poached the best players from the other teams and had created a super team. We saw the pitcher who had dominated us in Heidelberg red in the first game, now wearing Rhein-Main blue. We were pretty pissed about this, but it was apparently legal. Whichever team won this tourney would go on to represent the German-American team in some larger tourney, so they wanted a super team. None of our players had been poached. Shocker.
Our teams resumed the trash-talking that we engaged in when our first game was suspended. And then our team went on to play the best game of baseball we had played all year. Even I played well. And just like the Bad News Bears, our team did the impossible in beating the best team in the league, with all its stacked players, 17-10. How we put up 17 on a team that stole all the best pitchers, I’ll never know. Our momentum did carry into the next game, where I had my personal best of the season, hitting 3-4 with a couple of stolen bases and a couple of base runners gunned down from the outfield. But we did go on to lose that one to Baumholder by the same 17-10 score. The last game was stupid because Bitburg was a team of 6’2″ 30-year old men that hit the ball for miles. We lost 18-1…..
It just occurred to me that I got way into the baseball story and wrote too much about it. This was supposed to be about the bully.
The bully’s name was James Merryweather. My wife got really upset that I included last names in my first bully post, so I went back and deleted them. I haven’t been using last names in this post. But James’ level of assholery warrants full recognition. I met him because he was friends with a couple of the players on my baseball team; the two biggest, strongest members. James was about the same height as Ron (taller than me), he had a light brown mullet, and he always seemed to have a dickish smirk on his face. Somehow, I came to fall in with them one day, as we all lived in Edwards. Ron still lived in Platen, so I didn’t see him much when I was home. The boys weren’t my cup of tea, but I followed them around for a while that day and listened to their nonsense. I guess I was just trying to build team unity, or something, since this happened while the season was still going. We came to rest outside one of the buildings and James sat up on a fence. After some time, an older woman called out of her window from up in the building for James to get off of the fence. James gave her some smart ass comment and stayed on the fence. The woman started getting angry and again told him to get off. James became more disrespectful in his comments. Now, this is all coming off like the lady was being petty, and maybe she was. I really don’t remember the particulars. But I do remember that whatever James was saying crossed my line for what you don’t say to your elders. I told him to quit being stupid…..
This is the third and final time that I adopted a new bully by calling someone stupid. All three of those bullies (the tomboy in Illinois, the Warriors gangster in Oklahoma, and now James) were the three worst bullies I ever had. You’d think I had learned something from the first two.
On that day, James just gave me a look of angry dismissal. So I dismissed myself. Despite my history, I thought that would be the end of that. Maybe I thought that since I had played baseball with the two guys, they would just let it be. I didn’t think it was that big a deal. I intended to just move on with life and not hang out with those guys anymore. James had other plans.
If you’ve seen any high school movie that had a bully in it, you’ve seen most or all of the typical cliché dick moves a bully will pull. James had all of them in his toolbox, and he employed every one with me. Funny thing is, he never actually fought me. Oh, he threatened to. He even gave me the ol’ pretend-to-throw-a-punch fake out move to make me flinch. He did that a few different times. But he never threw a real punch. He didn’t have to. While Ron always had my back, James alone was as big as Ron. Neither were real buff, but both were tall and not scrawny. But James always had those two goons from the baseball team with him, and they were both bigger than James or Ron. Even when I really wanted to hit James- and he made me mad enough at times to push me to the brink- I always held myself back for fear of the group-beating I would likely receive, and that Ron might receive also.
So what did James do? The earliest antagonizing acts I remember were the classic throw-his-shoulder-into-me move in the school halls. Sometimes the hall would be crowded and I wouldn’t even see him coming. Then WHAM! I’d be knocked hard sideways into a locker and hastily jerk around to see what the hell happened only to see his two goons turning their heads and laughing while James just strutted ahead without turning around.
Ron and I were invited to a birthday party for a girl named Wendy. She was turning 16, and she had her party up in the top of one of the buildings where no adults were present. I hadn’t hung out with Wendy too much before, so I was surprised to discover James and his goons at the party too. Apparently they were friends. This was the day that I discovered that Wendy was sweet on me. I don’t have a very good radar for such things, but Wendy wasn’t really the subtle type. I remember very well the coy looks she gave me and the way she was lip syncing to Paula Abdul’s Straight Up while smiling in my direction. I did not know that Wendy felt this way about me and I was intrigued. Dorky, shy, and hopelessly devoid of any smoothness around girls… but intrigued. James caught on to Wendy’s vibe toward me. He started getting fresh with her. He started saying suggestive things to her. He danced with her and grabbed her butt. She expressed her disapproval. It was all set up for me to be the hero and win the girl. Like in the movie Back to the Future when George McFly is trying to dance with Elaine after winning her affection and that dude comes over and takes Elaine and says “Scram, McFly!” and starts dancing with Elaine while laughing and Elaine is clearly upset and calling for George, but George is walking away like the loser he always was, until he comes back and palm-shoves the dude in the forehead to the floor and takes Elaine and gives her true love’s first kiss……. except I didn’t do any of that. I just scowled meaninglessly at him, basically giving him what he hoped for. Somehow, I did end up going steady with Wendy, but I don’t know how. Surely it wasn’t my impressive display of protective chivalry that day. Maybe I’ll talk about my hopeless foibles with females in another post. There’s plenty to laugh at.
Another time, I discovered that my locker had been busted into and my stuff was stolen. James was the only person I suspected, and when I confronted him about it, he gave me a knowing smirk- that dickish smirk I’ve mentioned- that basically confirmed his guilt in the crime. I was so mad and letting him know about it, but he just kept looking at me like, ‘Wimp, you know you’re not gonna do anything about it. And if you do, it’ll be exactly the excuse I’m looking for to destroy you with my goons.’ Bullies work with that mentality- that retaliation for something they did is justification for their bullying.
After the locker incident, I did grow some balls and planned retaliation. Not a well thought out retaliation… I used his stupid move and I threw a shoulder into him once when he didn’t notice me coming. It was pretty excellent. He turned and looked at me all startled, which was so sweet. But I wasn’t cool enough like him to have just kept walking. Partly because the force required to jolt him made me stop in my tracks. While I relished the brief joy that came with his startled expression, it was very soon when I realized that I had no follow up move. And, you know that part in Back to the Future when Marty trips Biff in the diner and Marty feels all good about himself, but then Biff stands up to his full height and you just see Marty’s bulging eyes over Biff’s towering shoulder?…. That was basically what happened here. Except I didn’t punch James and ride off on a skateboard. No. James talked smack and did the fake punch to make me flinch thing while his goons sneered menacingly. And it earned me many more months of bullying.
One day, Ron and I walked into a little American grill style joint just off of Edwards. We were delighted to see behind the service counter James in a dippy hat and an apron. We took advantage of the situation, knowing that if he didn’t want to get fired, he would faithfully serve us. We asked him many questions about the menu items, all the while smirking at him in his dippy work outfit, and completely relishing catching him in this vulnerable setting without his goons around and with his coolness in the toilet. He tersely answered our questions with a contemptuous look upon his face and then went back to prepare the fried chicken tenders and fries we ordered. It wasn’t until some years later when the disgusting concept of food workers adding bodily fluids to peoples’ food was revealed to me in news that it occurred to me that I very likely consumed some of James’ bodily fluids that day. Grody.
The crap with James started sometime in 10th grade and lasted until I left halfway through 11th grade. I did not miss him.
I’m Gonna Knock You Out. Momma Said Knock You Out.
I have received trauma that rendered me unconscious only twice in my life that I remember. In second grade, I was playing outfield for a T-ball team I was on (the training for my later super stellar high school baseball contributions). Some kid knocked the snot out of the ball and I was running back really fast while trying to look back and keep my eye on the ball. I felt a sudden, painful impact on my head and body and then woke up some moments later with a bunch of people around me asking me if I was okay. I had run directly into the monkey bars that were just past the outfield.
I duplicated this unpleasant experience when I tried out for the Frankfurt Eagles football team during my junior year. It was summer camp and I assume Ron compelled me to try out. We both loved football, but even Ron, who was quite a bit bigger than me, was dwarfed by many of the boys on that team. I guess I hoped or figured that my speed would be good for something. I quickly discovered that the weight of the pads and helmet put a big damper on your speed when you’re a puny 125 pounds. I looked so ridiculous in my big shoulder pads and big helmet and tiny, skinny body underneath it all.
Despite this, Coach Toth did offer encouraging words to me during camp. I tried hard, and he liked effort. I attacked the tires, demonstrating adequate agility as I stepped through them. I performed monkey roll exercises with only a few disorienting screw ups. I hung my light body from the edge of the scoreboard base with my chin held above it for longer than most of the guys. Coach noticed that…. But then came the tackling drills.
I already had suffered the reality of diminished speed in heavy football gear; but now I was about to participate in a drill that eliminated speed as an asset and rewarded mass. In tackling drills, there are two lines. One group of boys stand in a line (one behind another) that faces another group of boys in a line. The boys at the head of each line stand between two orange cones. The boys are separated by approximately 8-10 feet. One of the boys is carrying a football. When coach blows the first whistle, the boys rapidly step in place with quick feet. When coach blows the second whistle, the ball carrier advances in attempt to get to the other side while the other boy is supposed to try to tackle him. There is no room for fancy stuff between these narrowly-placed cones. This is simple Newtonian physics here.
I was standing in the tackling line, and I was about 4-5 boys from my turn, when people apparently started doing the math on my matchup. I heard some people snickering. I heard some people say, “Oooh, shit!”… I didn’t realize that they were talking about my matchup until I came to the head of the line and saw my opponent. Standing across from me, football in hand, was our all-conference running back, Sydney Lamora. The dude was a stud. He was a gifted athlete and he outweighed me by probably 60-70 pounds.
Everybody was watching in sick anticipation. I imagined it was like anticipating watching the collision between a speeding truck and a tricycle.
I wasn’t an especially smart person, but I understood the basics of Newton’s laws. Newton’s laws said I was fucked. And yet, despite this understanding, I somehow found a bizarre courage within me. Yes, I saw Sydney standing across from me. I saw his superior size. I saw the fluidity with which his feet rapidly stepped in place. I saw the determination in his face. He appeared to have no qualms about being matched up against a clearly inferior human. But I found within me some strange confidence that I could do this. Maybe it was the pads and helmet I was wearing. Maybe it was the encouragement that coach had previously given me. Maybe it was the increased adrenaline that coursed through my veins when I was rapidly stepping in place and tasked with colliding with someone who is not supposed to advance a ball beyond me. Whatever it was, I started to believe that I could tackle Sydney Lamora to the ground.
Coach Toth must have seen that look in my face. He seemed to be hesitating to blow that second whistle, perhaps fearing the carnage that he would be tasked with cleaning up. But with a curious head cock and a shrug, he gave all of the spectators what they had been eagerly anticipating and blew the whistle. Without hesitation, I ran forward. Sydney did the same. I opened my arms up as I advanced and leaned forward into his chest.
I woke up some moments later with the coach staring over me and the team circled around my pile of bones. I do remember hearing the crunching sound of our bodies colliding, before being knocked out. Some guy said that Lamora tripped over my unconscious body, therefore, technically, making me successful in tackling him. I didn’t believe him, though. Pretty sure he was jerking with me.
Effort or not, coach saw that I wasn’t built for this. He sent me over to catch footballs, or some such. Eventually, I tried out for quarterback. It was stupid of me. I had achieved second string quarterback… of the JV squad… by the time I decided to quit. When I went to coach’s office to tell him I was quitting, he was very disappointed. He went on about me being a quitter and made me feel like crap, but I knew I was making the right decision. I could have been the skinny loser 11th grader on the bench of a JV team who hated to hear all of the locker room talk and feared the immature shenanigans that such locker dwellers regularly engaged in. Or I could preserve the little dignity I had left and slink away before I got really hurt- or worse- embarrassed myself with bad play on the field. I slinked away.
* * * * *
There were other little incidents at FAHS during my semester in 11th grade there. I got rolled over by a 250-lb ‘roid-raged linebacker in gym class when he didn’t like that I was competing. I had a couple of classmates threaten me when I kept forgetting to pay $5 debts for stupid bets I made on the Bears that I lost. Some senior named Mike, who was a short “nerdy”-looking guy with glasses, had it in for me and bullied me for awhile. No memory at all why. I got fed up with him and came at him with a can of soda one day when he pushed me too far. I threw the can really hard against a dumpster that was behind him while I was yelling in fury. It was pretty badass and he left me alone after that.
Ron left for the states before I did, sometime right after football season, I think. I went back to the states during winter break. I remember we were stuck at the German airport all day because of bad weather, but I was fine with it because I was reading The Stand by Stephen King at the time and was way into it. I was kind of dreading going back to the states anyway, because we were being sent to Georgia, and I really didn’t think I’d fit in very well there.
He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.
My dad was stationed in Fort Benning and we ended up living in Columbus, Georgia. Ron had been stationed in Savannah, so at least we were in the same state (if on complete opposite ends) and did visit a couple of times. As I mentioned, I wasn’t enthusiastic about Georgia. I knew it was a Bible belt state with a lot of racism, and my views were going to be at odds with many people there. I was correct, but not as correct as I thought I would be. In fact, I would find myself ironically battling a prejudice that I created out of my self-righteous self-perception of having no prejudices. I’ll get to that.
The school I ended up in was Jordan Vocational High School. Of the six local schools, this one was dubbed “The Redneck School”. Great. In the first class I had, I was trying to hide at my desk when the teacher asked me to introduce myself and where I was coming from. I introduced myself and said I was coming back from Germany. The teacher then enthusiastically revealed that the fella behind me was also recently shipped back from Germany. I turned around and asked him where he was coming from. He said Wiesbaden. I groaned and said I was from Frankfurt. He rolled his eyes. I then explained to the class that Frankfurt and Wiesbaden had become bitter football rivals and our teams met and played in a classic championship game… (it turns out the football team did quite well without my help). Frankfurt won the championship in exciting fashion and this fella behind me had been on the Wiesbaden team that lost. We became fast friends. His name was Art.
Art had been an offensive lineman for that Wiesbaden team and blocked for the unstoppable Duba Flowers. Duba was a running back that dominated Frankfurt in both of their classic games that season. Art was 6’2″ and 240 pounds. He was also black. This is relevant because I was in Georgia and the racial tension there was unlike any I had ever experienced in my life. As fellow army brats, we bonded easily. There was racism in the military schools, but it wasn’t super prevalent- certainly not compared to what I observed at my high school in Georgia. I heard mutters of “nigger lover”, and got cold stares from some of the students. Some folks around there that didn’t know me from school would say incredibly appalling racist things in my presence, apparently just assuming that I agreed. Some of those people had seemed so amazingly sweet and were quite outwardly Christian. I had it in my mind that this is what Georgia would be like, but I was shocked and appalled when it actually happened. It didn’t help matters that the Rodney King incident occurred that spring of 1992. I overheard some of the black students bragging about rioting in Atlanta and this fueled the disdain that many of the white kids had toward the black kids. It was all ugly. But through it all, Art remained a gentle giant. One of the most soft-spoken and nicest guys I remember.
The football coach there tried hard to get Art to play for their team. Art told me he would play only if I played. I, with memories all too fresh of becoming football field roadkill, refused. I urged him to play. He was so big and strong and I envied that, so I guess I didn’t understand why he wouldn’t play. He maintained that he would only play if I did. I very briefly considered it. And then I saw the team. This team made the Frankfurt team look small and cuddly by comparison. I imagined my puny self walking into that locker room full of giant angry kids, many probably full of racial animosity, and getting absolutely crushed by any one of them. I politely refused. So it’s my fault, I guess, that Jordan’s football team was missing 240 pounds of player…. well, 300 pounds, if you count me.
I never had anybody attempt to mess with me or bully me while at Jordan. A testament to Art’s intimidating size, I’m sure. But there was a bullying incident that was important, as well as an important lesson I learned about prejudice. You see, I had already worked up in my mind how Georgia was going to be. And I had encountered many people who confirmed these notions. Unfortunately, this created a prejudice I had against any person with a southern drawl. I just assumed they were all racist. When I started to know people who weren’t, I still persisted in the belief that “typical rednecks” were all racist. To me, this was someone with a southern drawl who looked the part. Tight jeans. Boots. Large belt buckle. Mustache. I was prejudiced against that guy. But I didn’t see it that way. In my mind, they were all prejudiced and I was righteous because I didn’t hate people just because they were black. And then I got to know a fellow named John.
John was in my senior history class. John was tall and skinny with tight jeans and a large belt buckle. He had a brown mullet and a way-too big mustache for a high-schooler. He looked as redneck as a dude could look. With that, I had my mind made up about John. But I did notice, as time went on, that John would laugh at my silliness in class. It caught my attention because I knew that he knew that I was buddies with Art. And the fellas that disliked me for that fact never laughed at my silliness. At some point, John approached me about partnering up on an assignment. Art wasn’t in this class with me, so I couldn’t work with him. I hesitantly agreed. It turned out, we got along really well. I hate to admit that it was a struggle for me to get past his…. redneckness, though. It was just who he was. I discovered he liked to play basketball. So we met to play one day. John, in his cowboy boots and large belt buckle, showed up at the court just like that and played me in those boots. He was pretty good. We had some competitive games, which was a nice change from playing with Art who destroyed me the few times we played and just got bored with me on the court.
It was about that time when I realized how prejudiced I had been. I, who had perceived myself as being so pure from prejudice, just because I didn’t hate people for the color of their skin, had been no better than any of those folks. I had looked down on people for how their voice sounded and what they wore and how they looked. John was a way better person than me. And he proved it the day that my brother needed help from a bully.
My brother and I are 3 1/2 years apart in age, so we rarely spent time at the same school. But during my senior year, Michael was a freshman at Jordan. Poor Michael was even smaller than me all growing up. Skinny as me, but a few inches shorter, making for a prime target for assholes. The thing is, I often asked for the shit I received by opening my big mouth. Michael liked to stay low and didn’t piss people off. So I was especially mad when Michael told me about a kid who had been bullying him. Michael and I weren’t often getting along that well back in those days, so for him to tell me about this bully must have really meant it was bugging him. And while I was kind of an asshole to my brother back then, I wouldn’t stand for anybody else being an asshole to him. That was MY job!
I found out when and where this bullying was usually occurring. It was happening at my brother’s locker during a certain time of the day between classes. I told Art about it. He was eager to help. I told a friend, Grant about it. He was a class clown, but a BIG class clown who wanted to help. John heard about it too and wanted to help. I was happy to have him. At the scheduled time, I set off for my brother’s locker with three guys towering behind me in a fan formation. Grant, a tall, rotund guy with a pimpled face and gelled, parted hair. John, a tall, skinny dude with a mullet and a big mustache. Art, a huge black guy with a tall flat top. And me in front. A skinny boy with hair that looked Ace Ventura’s (that’s what happens when your 90210 Jason Priestley do goes too long without a haircut). We had to look like the most unlikely crew anyone could ever conceive, walking down the hall all pissed off looking. I chuckle to imagine it.
We showed up at that locker and the boy bullying my brother was a small black boy. My brother was smaller, so this kid probably targeted him out of convenience. I recalled having short/small bullies (Frankie and the Mike the “nerdy”-looking kid came to mind). They just wanted to feel tough to someone. This kid picked on the wrong boy, though. It was pretty comical seeing the look on the kid’s face when we called him out. Grant, who seemed especially perturbed about the bullying, called the boy out first and did most of the talking. Grant was good at that. The boy made haste out of there and I don’t remember my brother ever mentioning being bothered by him again.
It was a very cool feeling to be part of ridding someone I cared about of a bully. And it ended my official bullying experiences in school. Later in my senior year, some of my writings from a supposedly “private” journal assignment in English class somehow got out to my classmates within which I was reasoning out religion and casting doubt on theism. This naturally didn’t sit well with many folks there, and I lost Art and Grant as friends. But, thankfully, I didn’t get bullied about it.
There were a lot of near fights on the basketball court. Michael and I would play basketball at a nearby rec place for hours almost every day, it seemed. Adrenaline often got the better of people during basketball, even me. I came across a drawing I had done back in high school that depicts what I guess I perceived to be a typical jerk I might get into with on the court.
In my young adult years, I was around some fights, but never in them. I put on 35 pounds when I was 19 or 20, and I toned down my big mouth, so those things probably helped. Plus I wasn’t in school anymore, which surely helped. Even though it’s been years… heck, decades since those experiences, they’ve clearly left an impression on me. They certainly influenced the way I see the world, in some ways. While asking a close friend of mine about some details from high school while writing this, neither of us could remember certain things. I teased him about his bad memory and he said that he has “moved on” from a lot of things I’m “holding on to”…. I was offended at first by the comment, but then I asked myself honestly if I am “holding on” to some of these things. Perhaps I am. But I learned a lot of lessons from those many experiences, including the lesson that I have often been wrong even when I was sure I was right. This lesson always keeps me questioning myself and it’s a lesson I think a lot of other people could stand to learn. But hopefully with fewer physical beatings.