Growing up is fraught with hazards. Whether it was a stray dog roaming the neighborhood or being picked last for the team, each day could be filled with seemingly life-or-death challenges. My childhood nemesis was Brian, who lived on the corner near our house. He was friends with my older brother Jim, so he hung around our house a lot. Brian was, for lack of a better term, the unofficial neighborhood bully.
Me? I was the unofficial neighborhood bully target. Brian loved to throw firecrackers and shoot off bottle rockets , while I filled my days with trying to avoid being hit by firecrackers and bottle rockets. While I felt like I was developing a “Spidey-Sense” for when danger was near, it was more likely that I started to recognize the sound of a lit fuse and the smell of gunpowder.
I learned early on to be wary whenever Brian was nearby. My first clue came with a cut to the chin. Back in the 1960s, kids wore ‘trapper’ hats in the cold weather. You know, the kind with furry ear flaps and a buckle on the chin strap? I was playing in my basement, when Jim and Brian came bounding down the stairs from the cold outdoor weather. Coats and gloves flew one direction, and Brian’s trapper hat sailed towards me, hitting me in the chin. The buckle caught me on the tip of the chin, with the net result being a trip to the emergency room and 4 stitches to close the cut.
Since Brian was bigger and faster than I was, I took the path of least resistance, which was avoiding him whenever I could. That worked pretty well for the most part, leaving Brian to look for easier targets. My walks to the school and my first-grade class became much less eventful.
Until one day, I was walking down Lordeman street, past my cousin’s house, and there, standing in my path, was Brian. He saw me, stood up to his towering height of what had to be nearly five feet tall, outweighing me by a good 20 pounds. I knew I wasn’t going to avoid or out-run him.
As I walked by, I saw that Brian had placed an old “2X4” plank over a big mud puddle. Brian piped up – “I bet you can’t walk this plank without falling in the water.”
I responded, guessing that he was up to no good. “I can do it, but you’re gonna flip the board as soon as I stand on it.”
“No I won’t”. Brian tried to sound reassuring.
“Yes you will” I shot back, clearly not reassured.
Brian upped the ante. “You’re just a pansy”
My first-grade ego got in the way. “I am NOT a pansy!” I didn’t know much about flowers, but at age 6, I never considered them a sign of masculinity. I jumped on to one end of the plank, and started to boldly cross the puddle, determined to show Brian just who was brave and who wasn’t.
As soon as I got half-way across, Brian grabbed the plank and jerked it out from under me. I wobbled, then fell face-first into the puddle, soaking myself from head to toe. I put out my hands to break the fall, only to cut my left hand on a rusty tin can that was submerged in the mud below the surface.
I grabbed my hand and ran home. Mom cleaned off my hand, gave me some dry clothes and threw me in the back seat of the car for another trip to the emergency room. Six stitches this time, along with a tetanus shot. At least I got ice cream on the way home.
By third grade, we moved across town to a different school district, and I think Brian moved away from the original neighborhood. He wasn’t the last bully I ran into, but I learned early on that no matter how much a bully eggs you on, it’s better to just keep walking.
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