IN WHICH I subtly learn the obvious art of conflict
Paul Dabuse was the toughest kid in seventh grade. I knew this because I once saw him fight. That was enough to brand him as someone not to be messed with.
He strutted around the playground with a runt named Timmy Nurdan, who was what Lee Van Cleef was to Lee Marvin in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Nurdan hung around Paul because . . . well, we never knew why. He never told us. Some thought it was to pick up tips in terrorizing from the master. Not a bad choice, for as a bully, Paul was fairly awesome. To paraphrase the Gene Pitney song (which never made it into that movie), “when it came to punching straight and fast, he was mighty good.”
There wasn’t a Jimmy Steward good-guy counterpart in our class, but Benji Hall came close, even though he was the biggest know-it-all in the class. He was loud and smart, and pissed off people with his unusually sharp grasp of current events and his no-holds-barred attitude. He also had a nascent sense of what was right and wrong.
He wore his hair in a wiffle, which always leaned slightly to the left, probably because he applied an inordinate amount of Wiffle-Stick to it. Possibly because of his girth, he seemed scared of nobody, so he became one of my secondary friends. I love watching him in action. One day in history class we were discussing who was slated to win the presidential race later that year: John F. Kennedy or Richard M. Nixon. Benji said his father had given him a big Kennedy campaign button, and he took it out and waved it around.
“Yeah, you wear that,” Paul said, “and you’ll look like a big dink. Hey, you already are one.”
Everybody in class laughed. Miss Kenney slammed her textbook down and tried to stare us all down.
Benji turned around and said, “Better a big dink than a little turd!”
“Whoaaaa!” The class roared.
“We’ll have none of that talk in my class,” said Miss Kenney. “Civil discourse only, people!”
Paul said nothing, but he did shoot Benji a death stare. We all knew what that meant.
That afternoon in the schoolyard Paul cornered Benji and demanded he apologize for insulting him “in front of everybody.” Benji tried ignoring him until Paul called JFK a “pussy” and said that Nixon was going to wipe up the floor with him.
“As if I’m gonna apologize to a twerp like you!” said Benji.
Paul cocked back his fist.
I interrupt this altercation to explain suburban schoolyard fights of 1959. The rules differ slightly from the Marquess of Queensberry Rules for boxing, established in 1867.
- Boxing only. The Marquess of Queensberry Rules (MQR) is very clear on that. We tried to stick with these rules, so we observed the boxing only, but added no kicking, biting or scratching unless absolutely necessary.
- The MQR state that when one man is knocked down, “the other man is to return to his corner.” We ignored that. If you knocked your opponent down, it was okay to jump on him to complete the throttling.
- The MQR state: “No wrestling or hugging allowed.” If you were already on top of your opponent, hug and wrestle all you want.
- Fisticuff contests were strictly scheduled. We stipulated that if you made an appointment to fight after school, you had to show up on time. If you were late, your opponent could punch you first, as many times as the number of minutes you were late.
- The MQR state: “No seconds or any other person to be allowed in the ring during the rounds.” In our schoolyard, you were strongly urged to keep seconds close to protect you from being jumped by the other side, in case you won. If you failed to do this, you could have won and lost at the same time.
- The MQR state: “If one man fails to come to the scratch in the ten seconds allowed, it shall be in the power of the referee to give his award in favour of the other man.” Here we diverged as well. The fight was over if somebody started crying or said “Lemme go!” or “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” in the loudest possible voice. Nobody said “Uncle.” That went out with old Little Rascals shows.
- If a school official intervened, neither combatant could run away. Both had to accept their just punishment like true fighting men. Explaining what the fight was all about was voluntary, but unadvisable.
- The MQR state: “Should the contest be stopped by any unavoidable interference, the referee (is) to name the time and place as soon as possible for finishing the contest, to that the match can be won and lost, unless the backers of the men agree to draw the stakes.” We saw this differently: If you canceled a fight, or backed out for any reason, your adversary had the right to bad-mouth you, your family and your friends for at least six months.
Now back to the fight.
Paul smashed Benji right on the left nostril. It was like what I’d read about intercontinental guided missiles (ICBMs). Straight and deadly. A hooting crowd immediately formed, just like in Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954). Blood gushed all over Benji’s tie, which he wore every day, complete with an outsized flintlock rifle tie clip. Benji swung madly left and right and missed each time. Benji moved faster than most big kids and squished Paul against the wall. He landed a few punches, but they just hit Paul on the forearms.
“Ha-ha! That tickles!” said Paul.
Benji suddenly grabbed Paul in a bear hug and was about to pull him down.
“Watch out, Paul!” said Timmy, “he’s trying the ole squasheroo!”
Paul punched his way out of Benji’s bear hug and from that point on, the battle was over. When Benji got a second nosebleed and stopped to dig out his handkerchief, Paul moved closer to deliver the final one-two.
He never got the chance.
“Boys, boys! Stand back!”
It was Vice Principal Frank Picard. He grabbed both boys by the arms and “escorted” them into the building. Picard was the panjandrum of Richmond Junior High. Even in those days, he looked old fashioned. He parted his hair like the 1920’s writer H.L. Mencken.
Parents loved Picard. At the one school committee meeting I had to go to, “Welcome to Junior High,” Picard read his speech to students and parents. “There is no such thing as a bad boy,” he concluded. “Only a good boy who’s gone wrong. We must try our darndest to guide him back on the right path.” My mother was so impressed she couldn’t stop talking about him all the way home. I soon found out why. A couple of weeks later, she made me watch Boys Town for the second time in less than a year. This time I heard Father Flanagan recite the same speech as our vice principal. My mother never mentioned that Picard had just cribbed from a movie priest. Did she even notice?
Paul and Benji were in Picard’s office one whole period, and both stayed after school for two hours. They had to write essays about being tolerant of other people’s opinions. Paul never finished his, or so he said. I wondered what detention was like, as I watched Benji and Paul get dragged away by Picard. Did he threaten them? Give them a lecture? I had no way of knowing then, but I’d soon find out. And it would not be at all what I expected.
A couple weeks later before class I was licking and sticking gummed reinforcements on the loose-leaf sheets of my English homework, then inserting each page into my notebook. No idea why, but this infuriated Paul.
“The fuck you doing, Bates? You a retard?”
Addressing someone by only their last name was, for some reason, a sign of reproach. He pushed my notebook so hard it almost fell off my desk, but the gummed reinforcements did and scattered all over the floor.
“Well I was putting gummed reinforcements on.”
Why’d I bother telling him that? It had no good effect.
“Sorry, I was wrong. You’re not a retard. You’re a sissy.”
He didn’t mean “sissy” in the sense that I had sex with other boys. Twelve year olds had absolutely no idea what that meant (in 1959). To them “sissy” meant geek, like somebody who’d bother to put gummed reinforcements on loose-leaf pages so they wouldn’t rip out. There were only two of us who did that: me and . . . Benji.
That was the beginning of my sissy tag, but sissy was soon replaced by “fairy.” That name did have a sexual reference—someone who goosed other boys when they weren’t looking. Paul threw the word around every chance he got.
Once I walked into the gym locker room where Paul was hanging out with a bunch of kids.
“Watch your balls,” he said to them, “here comes the fairy.”
When I started to hear the chorus of “whooaaa” again, I knew something had to be done. But what? I had no idea.
“I’m not a fairy,” I said.
The metal lockers echoed back, “fairy.”
“Yeah? Prove it. What are you gonna do about it?” Paul taunted.”
He had me there. No way I was going to fight him in the locker room. I’d get creamed and the next day it would just happen again. Shuffling back to class, I fantasized about bringing my made-in-Germany Black Forest Dagger to school. I got it for $6.99 from the back of a comic book. I could whip it out and brandish it in his general direction. That would scare the shit out of him. But with my luck, he’d just take it away from me and bop me over the head with its claw-and-ball handle. So what was I gonna do? I biked home and called up my junior high mentor, Channing Johnston and arranged a meeting.
Channing was two years older than I and maybe three years more savvy. He’d taught me the facts of life the summer before when we spied a girl and some guys making it in the woods. When I explained the Paul-situation to him, he immediately started thinking up a plan. He always came up with something and many of his schemes got us into trouble. Some didn’t, so we just kept doing them.
We were sitting on the bottom branch of a gigantic oak tree, our favorite spot. Channing flipped open his bone-handled pocket knife and started carving away at a stick. He shaved at the wood, and was cutting too deeply, but he didn’t give two shits. He never whittled it into any cool shape like an eagle’s head or a skull. The most he ever produced was a lopsided point. This time he threw the stick down in frustration, maybe hoping it would stick in the ground below. It bounced and clattered against the rocks.
Channing ran his hand through his blonde hair, which was permanently messed up. Adults called it “curly.”
“Wait, Paul’s father owns that real estate office downtown, right? Cozy Town Realty? So you make a long-distance call somewhere and have the phone company charge it to them.”
“What good would that do?”
“Vengeance. Think of it as, I don’t know, religious. ‘Vengeance is mine saith the Lord.’ It’s in the Bible. Look it up.”
“You can do that kind of thing?”
“Sure you can. Jay told me about it.”
Jason “Jay” Manfred was sixteen, much older than we were, and he worked on weekends as an orderly at the Hunt Memorial Hospital. His favorite part of the job was peeking at women when they bent over, wearing only their johnnies.
“I get to see everything,” I heard him say once, and he was kind enough to tell us which everythings and their respective sizes.
“He does it all the time,” Channing continued, “calls some broad in Florida. Important thing is he gets away with it every goddam time. So can you. Know somebody who lives far away?”
I didn’t think long. “Yeah, Jenny Schauer. She used to be my girlfriend.” By “girlfriend” I meant someone I’d said hi to and smiled at, and if I got lucky she’d smile back. That’s it. We were seven. Jenny was spunky. She warded off pesky boys in the playground by saying she knew “Indian tricks.” She would flutter her hands like window-crashed starlings and scare them worse than a ghost from The House on Haunted Hill. At the end of the school year she’d moved to Minnesota but still wrote me letters. One had her phone number.
I followed Channing’s instructions. First I told the operator I wanted to make a long-distance call. Then I asked her to bill my “father’s” (Paul’s) family business and I gave her the number. She was very helpful, but just to be safe, I placed the call from the phone booth in front of Chet’s Auto Service.
Jenny was first surprised, then delighted, to hear from me.
I warmed up with “I remember how fast you used to read aloud through the Alice and Jerry books. You never stumbled over hard words like ‘walnut’ and ‘fence-post.’”
“Oh, I still like to read,” she said. “Right now I’m reading My Friend Flicka by Mary O’Hara.”
“I read horse books too,” I said. “I’m reading The Black Stallion and Satan and I just finished The Black Stallion Revolts.” I had no idea who wrote them.
“Oooo” she said. “Those sound interesting. No, never mind. Those are just boys’ books. I don’t ever read boys’ books.”
So we went on talking about her new dog, which her mother called the “piddlin’ pup” even in public, and the time they went to Yellowstone National Park but didn’t see Old Faithful erupt because her father got impatient when it was late, and the next-door neighbor who didn’t mow his lawn and “God knows what’s living there,” and little sister who swiped her poodle necklace but she caught her wearing it at school –“How dumb is that!” – and Mike’s gooshy Valentine’s card that wasn’t signed but she knew it was from him, and the gooey Chinese food they were supposed to eat tonight for the second time this month, and “by the way what have you been up to, besides calling me?”
We went on like this for about an hour. I must’ve racked up a huge phone bill but did I care? I’d never talked to a girl that long before and it felt almost as good as flipping through a just-came-out Playboy magazine.
Before we hung up, she said, “I have a confession to make. I really didn’t know any Indian tricks. I just made that up.”
I couldn’t believe I’d just made a phone call across the country to my old girlfriend and Paul had paid for it! Well, probably his father, but who cares? I had no idea it would be this easy. But I was gonna call her again real soon. I was starting to see a future in this. I could call her every week or so, tell her all about what was happening at school and all about my friends that she used to know. And maybe someday if she returned with her family for a visit, we could actually go out on a real date.
A few days later I called her again. She didn’t seem so happy.
“The phone company got ahold of my mother this morning.”
A huge truck drove by. The phone booth shook.
Jenny’s mother had come up to her room with a piece of paper in her hand and asked if Jenny had gotten a call from somebody in Danvers, Massachusetts. The billing office must have figured out an illegal call had been made to their house and charged elsewhere, and they “were inquiring” about who’d done it.
Jenny said she told her mother, “Oh sure, people call me all the time and say where they’re calling from. Like ‘Hi Jen, this is Ray and I’m calling from Coon Rapids. Hi Jenny, this is Susie and I’m calling from White Bear Lake.’ Like that ever happens.
“My mom just stared at me – don’t ask me what she was thinking – and I kept staring back and she gave up and walked out.”
“Hmm, that’s interesting, very interesting, wonder what that could mean,” I said slowly, stalling for time till I could think of some excuse she’d swallow.
“I wonder what they do when they catch someone who cheats the phone company like that. Lock him up, you think?”
There was a long pause, because she’d hit on the problem. I couldn’t think.
“It was you, wasn’t it?”
“Could be. Or maybe it was some guy who’s me in another dimension, one of sight and sound.” Silence. “You know, like in The Twilight Zone?”
“Twilight Zone? What’s that?”
Suddenly my friendly call to a girl whose current prettiness I could only imagine had changed into a thrilling James Cagney movie and there I was – cornered like a gangster with an empty .38 Special. The jig was up and I was in for it. Worse, I even started wondering if I could have a girlfriend who had no idea what The Twilight Zone was. Had I suddenly put a restriction on who could become my girlfriend? Could beggars be choosers?
“Yeah, okay,” I said to Jenny. “So now what? I get thrown in the clink?”
“Peter, that’s not the point. What I really want to know is. . . are you a juvenile delinquent?”
Now that stung. I’d seen Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers on American Bandstand sing “I am Not a Juvenile Delinquent,” and while I wasn’t the perfect little boy with his sweet high voice, I knew what I was and what I wasn’t.
“No! Definitely not! I do not break windows, tease animals or deceive adults, except the time I snuck my dog that squash with disgusting sauce on it.”
I certainly didn’t own a switchblade like Jay Manfred. No siree, it was a straight Boy Scout knife for me. I conceded to myself, however, that I did hang out with Channing Johnstone, who my mother referred to as “one damaging companion you could get rid of, one-two-three, and you’d never miss him.”
“I heard JDs are sneaky,” Jennie said with a mocking chuckle. “And deceitful. Well, nice talking to you, Peter, but you’re trouble.”
“What d’you mean?”
“Sorry, I take it back. You’re double trouble.”
“No I’m not!”
“Do me a favor. Don’t call here again.”
“Wait,” I said at the exact time she hung up on me.
So ended my telephone romance with the possibly comely Jenny Schauer.
Now I was feeling sorta bad, as if Paul had just ambushed me and knocked the wind out of me with one huge-o punch. So what was I supposed to do next? Call the phone company and give the money back? How much would that set me back? I wasn’t going to turn myself into the Danvers police. I settled on going to confession the next day. That’d be the safest solution. Priests aren’t allowed to tell on you because of the seal of confession. I saw it in a movie. He’ll probably give me a whole rosary worth of prayers for penance, and that will be it. I’ll be all straight with God.
But even that didn’t happen. A day later Hurricane Donna struck suddenly and all my lingering guilt blew over with the towering black ash that had so lately graced our backyard. It was a particularly messy storm: branches and leaves all over the place, downed power lines, oddly pleasant-smelling sawdust, the whine of power saws lasting several days. Even the phones were out for at least 24 hours.
On top of the hurricane, I still had to deal with Paul Dabuse. Nothing had changed with that, except this: Three days later when school reopened, he wasn’t around. Almost a whole week went by and he was gone, gone, gone.
After school, I talked it over with Billy Bart, Benji Hall, and Steven Wright.
“Maybe Paul’s sick with the 24-hour grippe.”
“Yeah, the seven-day 24-hour grippe,” said Benji.
“His dad probably stuck him in reform school,” said Billy Bart, my only lunch room friend. (He hated the meals more than me.) “My dad always says he’s going to do that with me.”
“Hey, saw a dead body with Paul’s coat on, rotting face down in a ditch,” Steven Wright said. He’d been a frequent victim of Paul’s “quarters for protection” racket.
“Yeah?” said Billy. “Where?”
We all chuckled over that one.
“I got it,” I said. “He tried to pick a fight with the hurricane and it sucked him up like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.” Everybody roared over that one, even though it was a tornado that got Dorothy.
“Hey, why don’t we just go ask Vice Principal Picard,” Benji said. “I’m sure he’d tell us.”
We all shut up. We didn’t want to know that bad.
But we’d soon find out anyway.
Benji Hall, Fully Recovered
A type of short haircut from the fifties and early sixties. Although similar to the crewcut, it was not technically the same as the buzz cut so beloved by soldiers in basic training. A wiffle was slightly longer and was brush-like on top, requiring frequent application of Wiffle-Stick. ↑
A push-up tube of scented green waxy substance that male adolescents applied to the fronts of their wiffles with the aid of a comb. It made that part of the hair stand up so well it was impervious to wind. Since it never really dried, few harassers ever tried to muss up a wiffle. ↑
Also known as Our Gang (1922–1944) ↑
Unlike Mencken, he didn’t have an acerbic cell in his whole body. ↑
One of my stupidest mail-order purchases ever. It wasn’t even a real two-edged dagger, and it was a pain to sharpen. It looked cool but carrying it around was a chore, because it was so damn long and heavy. And it would never have helped in a fight, because we were decades before – and one reform school removed from – thrilling knife fights. ↑
Frankie Lymon was found dead at twenty-five in his grandmother’s bathroom. Heroin overdose. I read that his habit had caused him to be sneaky and deceitful. ↑
A much-maligned pocketknife, portrayed in 1950 as a lurid weapon in “The Toy That Kills” by Jack Harrison Pollack, a freelance writer and ghostwriter for Harry S. Truman. He wrote: “Designed for violence, deadly as a revolver – that’s the switchblade . . . Press the button and the blade darts out like a snake’s tongue.” Although no sharper or bigger than a standard folding knife, the switchblade was soon declared illegal in most states by lawmen like New York’s Special Sessions Justice John E. Cone. ↑