Promotion to Jr. High school, for me, was both intriguing and frightening. Jumping from just one class to many was a welcome new challenge, with lockers rather than those funky clam-shell desks that opened for storing your stuff, different rooms scattered around a large campus, multiple teachers and, most of all, new peers – lots of new peers. Comparably few would be existing friends from grammar school. Some might be new friends while others would almost certainly prove to be bullies.
Even at the age of 13, I understood enough about our culture to expect that I was now much more likely to have to deal with bullies – ugh!
I knew going into Jr. High that I was not a fighter. It held no appeal and fortunately I did not encounter very many situations that compelled me to defend myself. However, Jr. High did present the need to deal with four bullies. One of them barely qualified as a bully, but he taught me a wholly different lesson I relate in a different story.
Of the other three, the first one was big brutal guy with a gorgeous girl friend. Surrounded by his gang and his girl, he liked to corner victims and his tool of abuse was the hand-slap game where you hold both hands out in front of you – prayer style – while your opponent keeps both hands by his side. The slapper, with his hands at his side, would try to move a hand to quickly slap the slappee’s hands. If he hits, he gets to keep swinging, but a miss means you switch roles and games continues.
This guy excelled at slapping his victim – hard. He had this elaborate fake-out cool-guy routine that everyone but his opponent loved to watch and laugh at. Well, one day he and his gang and his girl singled me out. I’d love to tell you that I planned what happened next but I can honestly say it was not my fault.
I was losing badly and getting real tired of not being able to dodge his slaps or slap his enough to keep from being beaten – nor would he or the crowd let me quit the game – if you know what I mean… His girl friend was by his side, enjoying my misery as much as anyone was when I tried a tactic I really didn’t think would work. I kept my hands up and endured the pounding, which itself was terrible because each slap was painful, but I did it to lure him into a sense of easy hits, while I kept a straight face. After several hard hits, he saw that he had a great source of enjoyment going and stopped being so careful. Without giving any advance clues; I noted the start of his next swing and jerked my hands back.
Part of his strategy was to come away from his hip fast and upwards. He was already swinging fast and realized too late that his target was gone, but he was swinging as hard as he could so his slap quickly passed through the empty air where my hands had been and (yes) up and into the face of his girl-friend with a loud WHACK! She crumbled backwards into the crowd – upsetting to whole tone of the scene. A hush settled around the gang to see how the bully would react. Would he turn on me with an angry vengeance?
He chose to turn to help her and found her now bleeding from where he had mashed her lip into her teeth. The crowd burst into laughing (yea – really) and in the turmoil that followed, I smiled and walked off to let him deal with the fruit of his game. I didn’t see them together much after that. Funny…
The second guy was not as big, but was known to be an experienced hard-fighting thug who went out of his way to tempt you to raise your fists to him – which he would answer with a practiced beating. In one sense, I should thank this guy because he taught me that if I wasn’t ready to cream a thug, it would be best to ignore or escape him. Once, when I gave into his taunting, I got punched in the face for my trouble. Okay – lesson learned, but I hated him to the core ever since for his violation. Sorry, nothing funny about this creep who likely grew up to become the poster child for getting your concealed carry permit.
The third was an all-around unique situation that to this day I look back on and wonder – exactly how this all came about.
The final bully in my story requires some context.
If you were at Petaluma Jr. High in the late 1960s, you must have known Vice Principal Mr. Davis, who was a real nice guy unless he was disciplining you and your worst enemy if he was.
Petaluma Jr. High had a long walking ramp that angled up a steep hill from the PE buildings to the shop wing. The hill to either side was very steep and one day I was walking up it alone and noticed that two guys were at the top looking at me like I was bait. I knew them by reputation. One was a low grade bully and the other just a follower, easily led into trouble. It was clear that they were going to try something I wouldn’t enjoy. I must have been getting over a previous bullying event because I decided that I had had enough of this and wasn’t going to be victimized again, so rather than turning away, I hurried up the hill to meet them with a look of enthusiasm in my eyes that I hoped would unnerve them (recall that I was bigger than most – and chose to use it this time if possible.)
They nudged each other and started down the ramp to meet me.
I dropped my books into the ice plant on the uphill side, so both hands were free and made two strong fists so they knew what was coming.
They didn’t scare off that easy and kept coming; 2 on 1, from the uphill side of the ramp.
No matter – I was amped up now and was anxious to engage.
The instant he was close enough, I grabbed Follower’s arm and redirected his own momentum to launch him over the edge of the hillside – sending him rolling out of control down the ice planted slope – well out of range for the coming battle. He never seemed interested in my friendship after that move. No great loss that one, but the remaining bully was surprised to find himself facing me alone now.
The problem was that I had no great strategy for this phase and was just getting ready to do whatever appeared to be doable to disable this guy when fate and Mr. Davis intervened from the top of the hillside. “Boys – report to my office immediately!”
We were busted – without even one punch being thrown.
It felt ridiculous walking up to Mr. Davis’ office together with this bully. All hostilities seemed to have evaporated under the glare of our pending chew-out. I was particularly distressed by this because I considered him a friend who knew me not to be “one of his problem kids” and now my reputation was destroyed. Fighting with this jerk was a terrible decision, but what was I supposed to do? Perhaps it had just been the best terrible decision available…
As I walked, I hoped Mr. Davis hadn’t see the flight lesson I’d given Follower. I doubted that he would see how my high-velocity launch of Follower should be considered a public service.
We arrived at the office and were routed to Mr. Davis’ office who delayed joining us – perhaps to sharpen the knives he planned on using on us, but the delay was painful – sitting there with the guy who, only a few minutes ago, was my arch enemy. The office might as well have been filled with thick with dark oily fog and impending death music playing over the intercom because it sure felt that way. I’d never been in trouble with Mr. Davis before and was now more afraid of him than I’d been of the bully sitting by my side. One could only try to bruise me up, while the other held my reputation in his hands. The former heals up pretty fast, while the latter can take years to rebuild – sigh…
So – I thought – how best to answer for my actions? I knew that Mr. Davis was very unlikely to decide that Bully was fully responsible for the conflict and should buy my lunches for the rest of the school year to compensate for my pain and suffering. Mr. Davis was much more in the equal-opportunity punishment class of leaders – so no way was I getting out of this discussion with sympathy and understanding. I must have looked plenty aggressive when he spotted us. I was certainly trying my hardest to look that way. Lord – I hoped that Follower was at least still alive…
Now, I swear to you that what happened next was not planned out, nor was it discussed or decided as our best play. We were only 8th graders at the time and not bright enough to plan such a thing but when Mr. Davis arrived, sat down at his desk with us seated in front of him, ready to hear our pleas and render his judgments – magic happened.
After his dark stare-down of both of us, he started with me – I like to think because he knew that he’d never seen me in his office before and knew this was some kind of aberration to the normal balance of the universe. “Okay Wilson – what happened?”
I took a deep breath and answered him with excruciating honesty, “It was my fault. I started it.” His eyes got even bigger than they normally were, and I don’t think he wanted to believe me.
Right then, Bully spoke up, “no – that’s not true. I started it.” He even tried to explain how he had tried to approach me in a threatening manner, hoping to provoke a fight.
I quickly added, “…but I was trying my best to land the first punch,” which was true because I didn’t want him coming back up to land any punches at all.
When we both ran out of words, Mr. Davis gave us both a look that I’ll describe as sage disbelief. He certainly did not get this line of defense often (if ever) from my class peers and certainly not from both aggressors.
If you remember him, you’ll recall that Mr. Davis had a deadly stare-down that could drive all but the hardest of youth into a corner fearful of his judgment. We got the stare-down, but there was also a clear indication that he was trying to discern if we were giving him a coordinated steaming pasture patty or were actually accepting responsibility for our actions.
He finally said something that has been lost to unrecorded history and aged grey matter, but the result was that Bully and I walked out of his office with an obligatory essay to write about fighting. We both knew that we had somehow managed to dodge one of the suspension bullets that Mr. Davis was known for. The best part was – no notice was going to be sent to our parents.
Bully and I talked, okay – and laughed, about this unexpected mercy from Mr. Davis for many days afterwards, but the final surprise was that Bully and I actually became pretty good friends after this and during the time I hung around with him, he made no more attempts to pick a fight with anyone. Today I look back and wonder who actually influenced who in this event where the only loser proved to be the only guy who was a follower?