I was routinely stopped, beaten up, and relieved of my lunch money and any other spare change I might have. My books were targets, too. I would regularly be submitted to a game resembling running bases, in which I would have to run back and forth trying to grab my school book, which two toughs would throw back and forth over my head. One of my least favorite memories of junior high school was getting called to the library and reprimanded by Ms. Freedhome, the librarian, for damaging a library book I’d checked out and returned.
“Look at the condition of this book,” Ms. Freedhome said. “It’s disgraceful.”
I merely lowered my eyes, too ashamed to tell her that the bullies had thrown the book into a mud puddle during one of their “sporting events.” I remember one such idiot sneaking over to my desk and head-butting my temple three times during the free-for-all that was my social studies class. I guess he thought that constituted “getting social.”
Fast forward to the tail end of my freshman year in high school. My father, who’d boxed in the navy, had taught me the rudiments of the sweet science, as his father had taught him. And my parents had enrolled me in judo classes and bought me a set of weights for my junior high graduation gift. I’d worked religiously both at the dojo and at home to build up my pathetic body. By the time my first year in high school was nearing its end, I was physically ready, but lacked the courage to fight back. Thus, I still remained an easy target for the next generation of bullies I encountered. Finally, I got pushed over that mythological line in the dirt. A big, obnoxious, upperclassman decided he wanted to pick on me during a neighborhood volleyball game in front of my friends. It was as if all the anger and resentment that had been festering for so long finally ignited. For the first time I fought back and beat the holy hell out of the guy.
I’m not particularly proud of what I did, but it was a watershed moment in my life. Looking back now, it sort of reaffirmed Patrick Swayze’s great line in Road House, “You don’t win a fight.” He was right. Nobody wins. The story of the fight, and what I’d done, spread through the school like a wildfire and no one ever bothered me again. But along with the notoriety of having thoroughly beating up the bully, there was now an accompanying apprehension surounding me. Winning the high school weight lifting competition further enhanced my reputation, and I became, as John Wayne used to put it, the guy everybody “stepped aside from.” Other kids avoided me, and that was fine. I retreated into my shell and watched from afar. Despite my father’s insistence that I take a speech class to master the art of public speaking, I subsequently found myself able to speak in front of groups, but was utterly helpless in smaller social gatherings.
I can remember being invited to one party when I was in high school only because it was hosted by my buddy, Rick. When I subsequently asked him why I never got any subsequent invitations he replied with his customary brutal honesty. “Well, you stood in the corner of the basement and didn’t talk to anybody. You just watched.” Alas, his assessment was true. I guess I was born to be a counterpuncher, all right. Counterpunchers wait for their opponent to throw the first punch, then try to block it and throw a counter shot. A lot of times they have to take the first punch to give one back. But as the world turns, cultivating an ability to watch and listen has served me well. And counterpunching isn’t too bad if you have quick reflexes.
Yeah, I’ m still the guy you’ll see standing there in the corner, watching everybody else. Last year the chairman of the high school reunion committee contacted me once again and asked if I was interested in attending the next reunion. He read off a list of names of those who were coming. One of them was a punk who’d pushed me around in gym class freshman year, before word of my prowess suddenly caused him to make a hasty retreat. I mentioned that the guy was a punk and a bully.
“I’d like to think that stuff that happened that long ago doesn’t really matter now,” the reunion organizer said.
“It does to me,” I said. For that reason I declined to attend, but couldn’t resist adding, “Tell that jerk I remember him and I might just stop by the reunion to pay him a little personal visit. I’ll bring my boxing gloves.”
I actually had no intention of doing so, but like I said, we counterpunchers like to get in the last word. It’s just my way of “getting social.”