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Street-Smart Education of a Curmudgeon
By Wendell Abern
Recently, when I read a cantankerous column to my writers group, my young friend Sam pointed out that I always pick on women when unleashing my curmudgeonly wrath. Taking great umbrage at such an accusation, I reviewed many previous columns … and discovered he was right.
I hate it when that happens.
Sam, thinking back over my life, I know exactly why I don’t confront men the same way I do women. It’s all because of Donald Gray — and the events leading up to meeting him.
* * *
I was always The New Kid. I went to eleven different grammar schools in seven different Midwestern towns before I entered fifth grade in Chicago.
In those days, it was traditional for the new kid to have a fight with the bully in his class. I learned something from each fight. Such encounters lurk in my subconscious even today. I won’t recount all of them here; only those which illustrate how we grow up, but never really get away.
Fargo, North Dakota. Second school, first grade. Age six.
My playground baptism. Recess. The pumpkin-faced, bowlegged bully, accompanied by an entourage of three, stepped in front of me as I headed toward the swings.
“You’re the new kid.” Not a question; an accusation.
“What’s your name?”
“C’mon, what’s your name?”
“I said. Wendell.”
“Nobody’s called Wendell.” He turned to his minions. “You ever heard anyone called that?” Head shakes. Denials. Shrugs.
“New kid doesn’t want to give us his name.”
I noted the shift from singular to plural as the bully jumped forward and wrapped his arms around my neck. We wrestled. Fell on the ground. No big deal. “My friends call me ‘Dendy,’” I grunted.
“‘At’s better,” he said, and helped me up.
Fargo lesson: Beware of questions; any answer provoke a fight.
Omaha, Nebraska. Sixth school (second one in Omaha).Third grade.Age eight.
Recess. I really hated recess.
Bully had buck teeth, only one lieutenant.
“You’re the new kid. You sit in front of me.”
“Well, I’m new at this school, but not new to Omaha.”
“Oh. What school you been at before here?”
A light went on! Keep ‘em talking!
“Roosevelt Elementary. Awful school. Teacher looked like a cowpie.”
“Whaddaya think Mrs. McGillicuddy looks like?”
Laughs. Back-slaps. Handshakes. No fight!
Omaha lesson: Use your mouth as a weapon! Make ‘em laugh!
Minneapolis, Minnesota.Ninth school.Fourth grade. Age nine.
Tried to convince my new teacher I was allergic to the schoolyard gravel, and couldn’t go outside at recess. She said I needed a note from a doctor.
I slinked out after everyone else. Bully, with cruel mouth and at least ten lackeys, waiting for me.
“Who’re you? I never seen you before.”
Humor. I needed humor. I had just read a book on dinosaurs.
“Just started here today. My name is Terry. Terry Dactyl.”
Clearly, the bully knew nothing about dinosaurs.
“Actually, it’s Romanian,” I said.
Bad. Very bad. The year was 1943. We were at war, and Italy was an enemy. Think! Think!
“Romanian,” I said. “Both my parents. But my dad says his mother-in-law — she’s my grandma — was created in a lab.”
Chuckles. Keep ‘em laughing!
“When grandma came to dinner last week and I called her Frankenstein, my dad almost choked on his soup.”
Laughs. I asked if they had a softball team. The bully asked what position I played, said they needed a shortstop.
“‘At’s my position!” I said, even though I’d never played anything but the outfield. No fight.
Minneapolis lesson: Humor, yes. But always have another idea ready, just in case..
Chicago, Twelfth (and final) grammar school. Fifth grade. Age ten.
My first day. Burt, the guy sitting next to me said, “I wanta tell you somethin’, but don’t look. Kid in the back o’ your row. Don’ look, I said! Name is Donald Gray. He’s starin’ atcha. He’s gonna look for ya at recess.”
“‘Cause you’re the new kid. He always fights the new kid in whatever class he’s in. He loves to fight ’cause he knows he can beat up anyone. Watch ‘urself.”
Burt was right. Donald Gray was waiting for me, accompanied by a crowd that formed a semi-circle behind him. I silently cursed whoever had invented recess.
“So,” he said, “Where’dja come from?”
“Bismarck, Fargo twice. Pierre, Omaha twice. Duluth and Minneapolis.”
“Yeah. Not funny.”
“Listen,” I said. “I understand you wanta have a fight. But see, I just got over a hernia operation, so we’ll hafta wait a coupla weeks.”
I was trying to conjure up another idea when Donald Gray hit me. He hit me with a roundhouse left, and with a fist that made a large “thwack” sound against my face. No one had ever hit me in the face. I literally saw stars.
I woke up in the nurse’s office; she was applying a horrid-smelling rag to my nose, which I later discovered was ammonia. I was sent home for the day. Two weeks later, after many similar incidents, Donald Gray was sent to a reform school.
Chicago lesson: If you’re going to use your mouth as a weapon, do it with girls, not boys.
* * *
So you see, Sam, you live. You learn. I blame all my confrontations with women on Donald Gray.
Wendell Abern can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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