Until third grade, I had the protection of my older brothers from bullies. In 1960, however, they were both off to junior high and I walked the 1.8 miles to Jonas Salk Elementary School alone.
The distance wasn’t a problem, even back then I liked to walk. The problem was a couple of older kids along the shortest route who shook smaller kids down for lunch money or, in my case, dessert from my lunch bag. I would have fought them if I had to– little gets between a meal and me– but luckily there was a virtual flock of alternate routes. The bullies’ headquarters were on Jay, but Oriole, Wren and Bluebird Streets were all bully-free and added only a couple of tenths of a mile to the route. There might have been blood if I had to give up a homemade chocolate chip cookie but often discretion, in this case a detour, is the better part of valor.
In junior high, it got harder to stay out of the way of trouble. There was one boy, Crazy Al, and a couple of henchmen that hung out in the bathroom waiting for the chance to overwhelm unsuspecting victims, force their head into the commode and flush. Then and now it’s called a swirly, and there are only a few things more humiliating.
Al earned his handle honestly: he was crazy. Once, while the class was watching a movie on the Civil War, he grabbed the American flag off the wall and dove out an open window shouting, “into the breach, men.” Another time in science class, he purposely dropped a gallon jar of formaldehyde-preserved frogs onto the floor causing an evacuation of an entire wing of the school.
Al didn’t necessarily have it in for me– he was an equal opportunity terrorist– but I came into his crosshairs one day when no teacher was around. For no explainable reason he began pushing me in the chest and taunting me to fight. Before I could decide whether I was a man or a mouse, I tripped and slammed the back of my head into a wall. Knocked out, I was brought back to consciousness with smelling salts, which apparently every teacher in the school carried in their back pocket or purse. Coming to, the teacher urged me to tell what happened while Al glowered at me over her shoulder. Weighing my options, I opted to be a stand up guy and not rat: “I just tripped, that’s all,” I offered. The ploy worked as Al, for the rest of my junior high career, became my guardian angel. “Mess with Fleck and your messing with me,” he was fond of saying.
My main man, Al and me.
Meanwhile, another bully, Guy, was gaining a reputation. Besides being as mean and crazy as Al, Guy was a teenage mutant, easily half again as big as just about everyone else. He threw his weight around a lot, in school and out.
Younger readers may have a hard time relating to this, but this was an era before computers, tablets, smart phones, cable television, air conditioning and indulgent parents. As a result, when children were not in school they were outside playing. Guy lived a few blocks over and his bullying zone did not reach ours until the summer of 1965 when he began ranging out and showing up in our neighborhood.
Two days in a row he lumbered over and ruined a perfectly good game of baseball by standing in the middle of our makeshift diamond and taking a swing at anyone who dared come near. There was only one of him, however, and I orchestrated a plan of revenge.
Mom at the time was an Avon Lady and she had a big box of tiny lipstick dispensers she gave away as samples. I secured a dozen of the little tubes and called a meeting of the kids in the neighborhood. I convinced them that there was safety in numbers. If we acted together we could bring Guy down. The plan worked. Guy showed up, we mobbed him in and smeared him good with lipstick.
I like to think of myself as a person that doesn’t hold a grudge. I’m sure many of my tormentors went on to lead socially responsible lives. Yet if Guy is alive somewhere I hope he’s still wiping fuchsia pink out of his ear.