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Boys Will Be Boys, But Bullies Ruin it for Everyone

I was in 5th grade. After that thing my brother did, which resulted in his being forcefully removed from our house and becoming a ward of the state, life changed for us. At the time, I went to a good school; we lived in a great neighborhood for riding bicycles; I had my own room. Life was not bad, for me.

But after my brother left home, it went downhill fast. I was too young to understand the adult complexities that come with your child doing something horrible, but from the cautionary, muffled conversations I heard between my step-mom and my dad, and other family, I know there was a lot of embarrassment and general unease in our community, both within our neighborhood and our church.

I guess I can understand my parents’ decision to sell our house and move to another town. It wasn’t too far away, but far enough that we would no longer see any of our old neighbors or friends, and far enough away that I had to change schools right when I was starting the 6th grade.

In short, we moved to the country (more on it in this blog about our house and my friend, Joe). While I wasn’t exactly a city-boy, I might as well have been from Saturn with glowing eyes and antennae coming out of my head. The established boys in my new neighborhood took an immediate and distinct dislike to me from the get-go. In fact, it wasn’t just the boys in my neighborhood, but a number of boys in my grade.

Today, society has a low tolerance for bullies. But back then, “bullying” was just boys being boys and if you didn’t want to be bullied, then you’d better learn how to avoid them or learn how to fight. At the time, I weighed in at a mere 60 pounds in 6th grade, so the best option for me seemed to be avoidance.

Every day I walked behind the portable classrooms to avoid the two boys who always used the well-traveled walkway behind the cafeteria and who, if they saw me, liked to physically push me around and tell me about all the horrible things they would do to me if they ever caught me off campus. There was the boy in P.E. who also hated me for some unknown reason. This particular bully kept at it for nigh on a year until one day I snapped, threw him down, grabbled his legs and began dragging him all over the football field. Yeah, I don’t understand why I did that either versus just straddling him and pummeling his face. I think it was over fear of actually hitting him, which I get into later.

To avoid all confrontation, I helped out just about anyone who asked, with their homework or with a “loaned” pencil or some paper that I never got back. In general, I did everything I could to stay under the radar and avoid a pummeling. But you know, boys will be boys. Bullies can smell fear and nothing makes them feel bigger than to see a kid they’ve picked on, running scared.

By far the worst of the lot, was a kid in my neighborhood named “Craig.” Craig was a little taller than me, but he outweighed me by about 20 pounds. He and I were about like Ralphie and the bigger Farcus brother from “A Christmas Story.” Now, I didn’t have any classes with Craig, probably because he wasn’t very smart and I was mostly in advanced classes (read: Nerd), but I did have to ride the bus with him every morning and evening.

In the mornings I rode my bike over to another boys house (Greg) in the neighborhood to catch the bus, which didn’t actually come into the neighborhood but rather stopped on the main road at the entrance to it. For some reason, this kid whose house I left my bike at, liked me well enough. Not enough that he took up for me over Craig and his cronies, but he was a big enough kid and he had a very large older brother named “Boogie” who never wore a long-sleeved shirt or coat even in the winter. Greg was the Canada of the neighborhood–at least politically–so when I was with him and his massive redneck brother (and I say that with fondness), everyone basically left me alone.

After dropping my bike off at Greg’s house of a morning, I’d wait for him to finish getting ready and then we would head out to the bus stop where I did my best to avoid looking at Craig, or his cronies. Because, like anyone in jail can tell you, eye-contact is a form of aggression and I wanted to avoid that at all costs.

Still, I knew they watched me, and whispered about me, and shot daggers from their eyes at me while I looked at anything BUT them. And the name-calling, man I heard it all. Mostly, it was words you can’t say these days without getting nailed with a hate-crime, but back then it was just standard bully-fare.

Afternoon bus rides home were more of the same except I only had to avoid Craig and his bunch as they boarded the bus and moved to the back. Once we got off the bus my Canada protection-neutrality vanished once I got my bike, or on the unfortunate rainy days when I had to walk because my bike couldn’t make it through the 6-inches of muddy slush created by a freshly grated dirt road and an inch of rain.

After about a year of taunting, even Craig’s lackies became emboldened and started following me for about 1/10 of a mile off the bus, yelling obscenities and pushing me in the back. One particular boy, who became the worst of the non-Craig boys, was smaller than me but what he lacked in stature he made up in colorful language and bravado. And he was merciless.

Now, I had always been taught not to start fights. It was particularly stressed in my house because of my brother, who, before he was taken away, started–and won–more fights than I’ve ever been in. It was my genuine belief that if I got into a fight, whether I won or got my butt whipped, I’d face a certain butt-whipping from my father when I got home. And my father favored belts.

So, I put up with Craig and his ilk for far longer than I would have preferred. But little did I know that one summer day in 1985, I was about to do something that would at least grant me a reprieve for a time.

It started off typically. I got off the bus and for some reason that I can’t remember, I was walking home that day, which always extended the length of the taunting because it was easy for them to keep up with me. I remember vividly cutting through someone’s yard, which opened up into a wooded field where no houses had been built. This particular day, Craig, was staying back and letting his minions handle the taunting.

This smaller boy I mentioned was walking just behind me and off my right shoulder. He had been calling me names for a good two or three minutes and there were several other boys walking behind him, egging him on as he worked me like a prize-fighter. As he got right up behind me to yell in my ear again, “fight or flight” took over and I spun around with a backhand, hoping to connect with his head. I missed. He may have been little, but the kid was quick and he dropped to the ground as I came around.

Though I didn’t connect with my would-be Joey LaRusso roundabout spin-move, it impressed upon him that maybe today wasn’t the day to pick on someone willing to fight and who happened to be bigger than you. I kept on walking and though they continued the name-calling and yelling, it lacked the usual vehemence it usually had and they stopped following me. A moral victory.

For a while, things quieted down. Sometimes with boys all they need to see is a willingness to stand up for yourself. Once they realize you’re not quite the victim they thought, self-preservation forces self-introspection, which inevitably leads to a decision to find an easier target.

About a year later, after a relatively quiet period of non-violence, Craig decided to start up on me again. I don’t know why, or what the catalyst was, but it was if nothing had ever happened and almost literally overnight, we were back to being sworn enemies.

By this time, the bus route had changed and instead of our having to get off at the front of the neighborhood and me riding or walking back to my house, the bus stopped about two-tenths of a mile from my house. One day on the ride home, Craig and his friends wouldn’t stop threatening me quietly on the bus. They told me they were going to get off at my stop. I figured they were bluffing until they didn’t get off at their stop, at which point I knew I had troubles.

My adrenaline pumping and my heart racing, I stepped off the bus. Not stopping to see who else got off, I began walking back to my house. I could hear the bus pull away and then rocks began whizzing by my head, thumping into the red dirt as the boys pelted me with quarter-sized pebbles.

I don’t know what made me turn around that day. Maybe I’d finally just gotten tired of living in fear–of them and my father–or maybe it was the fact that I had gotten a little bigger and felt that I actually had a chance of winning a fight. As I got nearer, a few more rocks flew at me but even those stopped as I approached their group. I was standing just a few feet away from Craig as he stood there glowering, I dropped by backpack on the ground; my heart beating out of my chest. I knew today was the day. It was him or me. No matter how it turned out, and no matter what my dad did to me when he found out, I knew that if I didn’t face Craig today, I’d have to live in fear the rest of my days there.

I looked at Craig and said, “Come on. Hit me.”

I believed that if I could get him to swing at me first, then maybe I could get some leniency with my father. He stood there glaring, not saying a word. So, I taunted him more, “Come on, hit me! You’ve been picking on me for years. Let’s do this!”

Craig just stood there. He didn’t say a word. He just stood there.

Finally, I pursed my lips, turned around, picked up my bag and headed home, fully expecting someone to come crashing down on my back and for the pummeling to begin.

It never came.

After that, Craig and his friends left me alone. There were still sneers and dirty looks, but the days of picking were mostly over. I suppose they realized there was some fight in me and in the last couple of years, I’d managed to close the size gap between Craig and me and I probably wasn’t quite as easy a victim as they’d once thought. Maybe once I was actually standing in front of him at eye-level, he realized he might not come out of the fight as well as he thought. And losing to this city kid was something his reputation would never recover from.

Not long after, we were having a family get-together at my house and it came out that I had been dealing with, not only Craig, but other bullies at school. My dad was furious. Not at me, but at the situation. The school knew I was being bullied and offered no help and never reported it to my parents. When my father asked me why I didn’t stand up for myself, I told him I was afraid of what would happen at home. When he heard that, he immediately started showing me a few “moves” that could help me at least hold my own.

There was still an admonition to never “start a fight,” but my father wanted to make sure I didn’t have to continue living in fear. He told me that if someone else starts it, he wouldn’t be mad at me for standing up for myself, no matter what happened. It was a small turning point in my relationship with him, but an important one.

To this day, nothing chaps me more than a bully. It doesn’t have to someone like Craig, either. Bullies come in all shapes and sizes. Some are physical bullies while others verbally bully people, usually through coersion and fear, or by withholding something they know you need. I’ve run into a few of them in my professional career.

But not matter the method, they’re all the same to me–bullies. And maybe part of my having beat my body up in the gym, and running until the joints in my feet fused, is because I regret the years I lived in fear. I never want that for my own kids and so I’ve continued my father’s “don’t start it, but finish it” philosophy with them. They know I don’t want them to start a fight, but they also know I don’t want them walking away from one, or encouraging others to continuing bullying by ignoring it and hoping it goes away.

Boys will be boys, or at least some of them will be. No amount of gender-neutrality can take away the biological desire to eliminate the competition. We can teach our children right or wrong, however; and when diplomacy fails, I expect them to protect themselves and their families. I consider it part of my responsibility as a father and I think my father did too.

Round Here – A fall day in D.C.

Had anyone asked me, before I joined up with the US Air Force, to describe my situation three years from the day I caught the bus in Mobile, headed to the MEPS station in Montgomery, my description certainly wouldn’t have included the words, “depressed” and “bored.” Mix in “the Pentagon” and it sounds less like a four-year duty station and more like some trippy dream you have during REM sleep right before you wake up to the sound of your alarm reminding you of the math test you’re going to fail in 45 minutes.

Living on a military base governed by a wing of the military in which you did not enlist should be high on the list of “Things the Government Shouldn’t Do To Military Personnel“; but, they do. I spent nigh on four years, enlisted in the Air Force, but living on tiny, boring, very little to do, Fort Myer in Arlington, VA, an Army base. Not to be confused with Fort Myers (note: plural) in Florida, which is not a military base, but is in fact, fun and wonderful.

Fort Myer in Virginia resides at the top of Arlington National Cemetary. Among other things, it’s purpose is to monitor and protect the cemetary and provide the elite guard watching over the “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.” The base itself, which is less than 2 miles at its widest point, includes (at the time I was there) a sundries store (think…low-rent Walmart with about 1/50th the selection), a BX (that’s a grocery store to Johnny Civilian), a bowling facility, a small movie facility, a squash court, basketball court, small track, and various administrative complexes. There is very little to do on-base.

Now, if you snuck through the fence at the back of the base, you could get onto a Marine facility, which was even more poorly arranged, with the exception of a much better sundries store, where I purchased this green recliner which, to this day, my wife maintains was blue. Granted, looking at this picture, I can understand why she feels that way; however, I assure you, it was not blue.

My green chair with my friend Brian Tardif enjoying a beer. Bottom left is my “roommate” with whom I shared this room for all of about two weeks when he arrived on site. Shortly thereafter, he hooked up with a gal and lived off-base for the entirety of my time there, leaving me with the coveted room to myself.

Most of us who lived on Ft. Myer and were in the Air Force, but working at the Pentagon, worked various shifts. As such, it was of utmost importance that your living conditions be conducive to a number of factors and situations, including:

  • Blackout curtains so you could sleep during the day.
  • A noise barrier pushed up against the bottom of your door to keep out unwanted noise from the echo-chamber hallways built of cinder blocks and concrete ceilings and floors.
  • A refrigerator so you could store you own groceries to cook when you’re awake (because you’re working night shift) and the base kitchens are all closed.
  • Various black-market cooking appliances you had to hide in your closet each day when you left your room due to any number of unannounced inspections. Generally, our Air Force commanding officer understood the situation in which many of us worked and was not unsympathetic to our plight. In return, he made allowances for us breaking the Army’s rule of “NO COOKING” in the barracks as long as he couldn’t see it when he did his cursory inspections.
  • An unspoken competition among various rooms as to who had the best electronics setup; a contest in which I was a perennial “also-ran,” but never quite the winner.
  • Cable television.

Despite my best efforts, the long nights awake in my room with no one to talk to, and even lonelier nights AT work where I frequently worked by myself in a nuclear-war survivable metal box, designed to be maintained by a single Airman in case of an attack, eventually began to wear thin. My parents divorced within months of my leaving home and my “back-home” girlfriend and I had broken up a few months back. I wasn’t terribly torn up about it, but I hadn’t yet been able to replace her with a new relationship, so all in all I was feeling pretty alone. I was also about a year younger than most of the others in the barracks, so when they all went out partying at the clubs–the ones requiring that you be 21 just to get in–I stayed home. All of that, combined with a growing tendency towards introversion, contributed to my becoming more and more…not depressed, but certainly, withdrawn.

Looking back now I recognize the mental place I was in and it wasn’t good. I needed a lift; something to pull me up and help me refocus on the good in life.

My friend Brian Tillett (another Brian) was off the same day as I. While I technically worked in “Tech Control,” Tillett (everyone called everyone by their last name) worked in Cryptography. I kept the communication lines working and Tillett made sure all of the communication lines stayed encrypted. We didn’t work together, but we frequently worked in the same facility and spent more than a few shifts watching Letterman, performing maintenance on the “world’s oldest electronics” and generally trying to avoid “guard duty,” a requirement to stand around and keep an eye on non-secured visitors to the area for anything as generic as “A/C maintenance.” These guard duties could last five minutes or five hours and all you could do was stand, or sit there, and do nothing but watch. It was interminably miserable.

Anyway, this particular day, we were both off work. Most of our friends were either still on day-shift, or preparing for swings, so we found ourselves separately with nothing to do and lots of time on our hands. I’d been feeling very detached of late and spending a great deal of time exercising if, for no other reason, than out of boredom. Sitting in my room, I heard a knock on my door, and opened it to find Tillett. We made small talk for a few minutes; neither of us coming up with anything the other wanted to do. Finally, Tillett said, “You want to just go for a drive?”

Now, at the time, I didn’t have a car on base. To get to and from the Pentagon every day, I usually caught a ride with someone. But, I’d never ridden with Tillett. He had this gorgeous Trans Am, a drop-top that rumbled when you cranked it up.

We hopped in his car and headed off base. No particular destination in mind, we just drove. I remember that neither of us spoke much. Tillett, perhaps feeling a bit of my mood too, put on Counting Crows, the August and Everything After album. You know, the good one. And while Adam Duritz belted out beautifully despondent songs like “Round Here” and “Perfect Blue Buildings,” I closed my eyes and reveled in the fall wind whipping through my hair and the feeling that I was living a nearly perfect moment; my cares lifted and my emotions soaring for the first time in far too long.

I don’t remember anything else about that day, but I remember that hour. Rarely since have I felt such peace and freedom. Maybe that’s why I love fall so much today; the faint hope that I’ll recapture that same feeling just once more in my lifetime.

I’ve mentioned before here on my blog that I wish I could go back and tell all the people in my life what they meant to me and how much they impacted my life. Tillett and I were never that close, and he’s a big-wig in the security space now, so this isn’t something I’d feel comfortable hitting him up on LinkedIn and telling him. Still, maybe he’ll stumble across this blog one day and read my simple, “Thank You.”

Brian, thank you for that day. It was one of the good ones. And there’s been far too few of them before or since.

Gender Roles and Gift-Giving in the 80s

The 70s were a confusing time for kids. The culture was changing and like all culture changes, while there’s always the revolutionary group moving forward with new ideas and new challenges to entrenched thinking, there’s also the stalwart holdouts plodding forward and pretending their sky is indeed, not falling.

But the 80s…well, the 80s made the 70s look like Hilary Farr on Love it or List it would look if she had a three-hundred-thousand-dollar budget to spend on an 800 square-foot house (I’m saying the 80s were crazy and excessive). But, in ’79 my dad got re-married to a woman eighteen years younger than him and if you think that wasn’t bound to cause problems no matter what the decade, you’d be very, very wrong.

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Welcome to Your New Home – Enjoy the Mites!

When I was ten, my parents decided it was time to move from the suburbs of Mobile, Alabama and our comfy suburbanite home where I had lots of friends, a great school, and an active social life at church, to the relative quiet and serenity of the country out in Semmes, Alabama. If my wife turned to me today and offered me that opportunity, I would jump at it. But, as a ten-year-old, I was less enthused.

We didn’t have a house yet to move into, but we had some land. My father had purchased five acres of property from a family friend and the plan was that we were going to build the house ourselves, or as much of it as unskilled labor can, and on the cheap. What fun!

Continue reading “Welcome to Your New Home – Enjoy the Mites!”