I’ll never forget Billy. We were in class together from First Grade till High School. We were never friends, but we didn’t hate each other till Fourth Grade. Something changed in that year that went from two guys with little in common straight to mortal enemies. School yard fights, trips to the principal’s office and parental involvement. How did two neutral kids get from tolerance to animosity? I’m not 100% sure, but I have a theory.
The animosity came to a head in 8th grade in which a fight in the boys locker room ended badly for both sides. Billy got suspended. I got detention. And we never spoke again, but we left each other alone after that.
I’ve no idea where Billy is today. What is he doing, is he successful, does he have a family? I tried to find him a few times after graduation, but he’d moved away and disappeared as best as my admittedly limited attempts could tell. But I won’t forget the nearly four years of bitter hatred we shared.
I’ve never been what you’d call a small person. I was always two or more inches taller than most of my class, starting in Kindergarten. My father drilled into me that it was wrong for a larger person to pick on a smaller person, to never fight, and to never use my size to bully people. Maybe he did too good a job. I spent a good portion of middle school getting hit and not hitting back. It wasn’t some of my favorite childhood experiences.
Now as to why Billy and I didn’t get along? I think it was football. Which is silly, because I’ve never been a huge fan of the game. Oh I enjoy watching college ball, and I even played in High School, but I’m not rabid by any stretch of the imagination. Nevertheless, I’m pretty sure that football started the war between Billy and I.
From my perspective, it wasn’t football at all, but the Navy. I loved ships of all kinds but the US Navy had the coolest. I was pretty obsessed with them. So in Fourth Grade we had to do an oral report on a biography we read. I asked the librarian to help me find some famous navy person. She suggested Roger Staubach. I found his story of football and service fascinating and devoured the book and delivered, if I may say so, a stunning oral report.
Here in lies the first shot of a war I had no idea was starting. The unintended consequence of doing a report on one of the Dallas Cowboy’s greatest quarterbacks was the simple fact that Billy lived and breathed Steelers football.
From that day forward, it went from benign tolerance to open hostilities. Simple probing attacks at first, from getting tripped in the hall to name calling during PE. Then it was waiting for me as I walked home. I remember once when he caught me on the walking bridge over Alders Creek and started pelting me with rocks. I picked one of them up and threw it back, catching Billy in the eye. That was the first escalation.
I remember the conversation that occurred at the dinning room table between my parents and his. How could they raise such a vicious child as myself. Clearly Billy was “just playing” and I retaliated with more force than needed. He could have lost his eye.
Truth was, I didn’t aim for his eye, I just threw it back. When dad asked me why I hit him in the eye, I didn’t admit that. Instead, I looked him square in the face and said “I have better aim.” Dad got the message, but I was instructed to “steer clear” of Billy after that.
I’m not 100% innocent in this affair. My hands are dirty too. I remember one day on the football field where Billy didn’t seem to be able to put one foot in front of the other. My taunts were unending and mean. I justified it because my team, the typical loser in these PE moments, finally won. But truthful, I was enjoying it far more than simply winning.
By Seventh Grade, the battle between us was well-known. Others would even instigate it just to see if something would start. Punches were thrown, although I honestly tried to avoid it. I ran more than I like to admit, and that seemed to push Billy farther. Principals started noticing, and I was told to avoid Billy as much as I could. I noticed that after a fight in Sixth Grade, Billy and I were always on opposite ends of the hall by class assignments.
Billy started to get into more and more trouble, and not just with me. For whatever reason, Billy was full of anger. He probably needed a friend, but when my Seventh Grade Counselor suggested I try to start one with him, it went badly. I never forget catching him outside after school and asking him if I could talk for a second. I apologized for everything I did (and some things I didn’t) do and asked if we couldn’t try to be friends. He punched me in the face. His friends laughed, right up till Principal Green snatched him up.
My father wanted me to get more exercise and signed me up for Karate in Sixth Grade. By Eight Grade I wasn’t half bad at it, although I also wasn’t that good. But that’s where this story ends. I had just performed in a demonstration for assembly at the school of the Karate forms and basic board breaking. Billy thought it funny. The next day, he cornered me in the locker room and started kicking me, laughing that I thought I was some sort of expert. When I say he had me cornered, I mean it literally. I had no other way out but through him, and he was determined to humiliate me in all ways possible that day.
I’d finally had enough. His kicks were a joke, and he didn’t defend his body or head at all. I’d never fought anyone seriously without wearing pads, and even then you pulled your kicks. I had on shoes and I didn’t pull it at all. A jump front kick to the chin sent him reeling. I hate to admit that I can recall almost every blow of that fight. Billy staggered back and I planted a side kick into his chest that sent him over a bench. He got up and charged me, and was thrown into the lockers for his trouble. At that moment I had the option to walk away. He was on the ground, and the exit was clear. To my shame, I didn’t leave. To my credit I didn’t mock him. I just stood there waiting.
He got up. He had a bloody nose and his face was puffy. Rage filled his eyes, and he came around the bench swinging. Block, punch to the ribs. Block, bunch to the stomach. Block, jabs to both eyes. It was anything but a fair fight. Since my first kick, he hadn’t landed a finger on me. He finally went to wrestle me to the ground, and a sweep kick sent him face first to the floor. Right at the overly large feet of one very intimidating Coach Battle. The first escalation was over.
For the next 30 minutes I cooled my heels in the coach’s office, sweating bullets over what was going to happen to me. Coach returned and sat at his desk just looking at me. It felt like forever but was probably less than ten seconds. He then asked what happened.
I lost it. I told him I was tired of Billy picking on me. That he cornered me. That he was kicking me and making fun of my taking karate. That he blocked the exit. I had no choice but to fight back.
Then he asked the most difficult question any man has ever asked me in my life. Was there any time in the fight I could have walked away. My gut screamed no, but my head knew the truth. Yes, I could. It took him a good ten or twenty seconds to get up from behind the bench. I knew then he was hurt. I knew then I’d won. That he couldn’t see straight and was hurting meant I could stop anything he tried. And I was no longer, at least in that moment, afraid of Billy.
So why did I stay? The coach sat quietly while I thought of a way to answer. I told him a truth that was more honest than anything I’ve ever done since, and I told him with my eyes full of tears. I didn’t want it to be over. I wanted him to quit. I wanted him to run. I was tired of running.
Coach then sat there a while. He told me he knew everything already. He’d seen Billy picking on me and bullying other kids. He’d talked with the witnesses, Billy’s little troop of malcontents that followed him around. They didn’t get into the fight because they were stunned anyone would stand up to Billy. I’d been so intent on avoiding him I had no idea he’d been bullying other kids. From my point of view I was his only target.
He then told me Billy was fine. Humiliated, but not seriously injured. He’d have a couple of black eyes and a swollen jaw, but I hadn’t really hurt him seriously. Which was lucky, since I could have really hurt him. He stressed that. I came close to really doing damage to the kid. (I’m sure that today, I’d have been fighting an assault charge, but back then things were different.)
Coach told me the principal would be calling my folks tonight to talk to them. That what I did was wrong but not completely unjustified. That I stood up to a bully, but not in the most practical or correct way. The principal used this as an excuse to suspend Billy and didn’t feel I needed more than a talking to, but he left the punishment of me up to coach.
Coach got quiet. He looked me straight in the face and told me that my mistake, the reason he was going to punish me was because I didn’t walk away when I could. I nodded and knew I was in trouble. He pulled out his paddle, and my heart sank. Horror stories of that paddle floated through the school. We’d all heard him use it on someone, and no one left that office following a paddling without tears in his eyes.
Coach had two hands painted on his desk. We all knew what they were for, so with fear filling my heart, I stood a put my hands in their spots. I heard the paddle sing through the air and jumped when it landed, with a thunderous blow, on the desk beside me. It hit the desk two more times.
Coach then told me to get out of his office. That tears better be in my eyes. And if he ever heard of me bragging about this day, I would get the three strokes he just put in the bank for me.
I never got in trouble for fighting again while in school. Billy never said another word to me and I continued to avoid him. Some other kids tried to get me to face him again, but I wouldn’t listen. Billy no longer posed a threat, and while I heard rumors of a payback coming, they never materialized.
Could Billy and I ever been friends? No, I don’t think that was ever possible. And all too quickly, the hate between us grew to the point that it could never be repaired or forgotten. I don’t know what happened to Billy but I hope he’s doing fine. I hope he found happiness and a good life. But as long as Billy and I and people like us exist in the world, Utopia is an impossible dream.
It is not just people who destroy the hope for Utopia, but cultures and nations and traditions as well. The concept of “lasting peace” is a search for Utopia, a place we can not get to without giving up almost all that we are. It assumes that another culture will embrace us when something as fundamental as your neighborhood pub is cause for violence. It discards the absolute certainty someone else feels is correct in because what you feel is correct is backed in the reasonable thought of your culture.
Never discount the little things. I thought Staubach was a pretty neat fellow. Billy thought he was Cowboy Scum. That brought out four years of violence and hatred. It seems so small, but black eyes, hurt feelings and years of terror make it clear that it was never a small thing.