Friday, March 4, 2011

How I almost committed murder. Or, fistfights and fear growing up.

How I almost committed murder.  Or, fistfights and fear growing up.
© Joel Baumwoll

By the time a boy is ten years old, he’s had at least four fistfights.  Most of these are more like wrestling matches punctuated by a few shots to the stomach or the ear.  Occasionally a haymaker would land on a guy’s nose, and the fight would usually end in a spurt of blood and howls of pain.  In those cases, the puncher would be as scared as the punchee.

My fighting career started when I was in third grade.  A kid who lined up behind me in the schoolyard liked to poke me in the neck with a pencil.  I have no idea why he picked me, except that I was directly in front of him and a convenient target.   My complaints only encouraged him.  Since “snitching” was against the kid code, I could not complain to Mr. Kennedy, the fourth grade teacher who watched over the line. 

I developed a plan.  Standard kid equipment in the Bronx of the 1940s was a “gun” made from the corner of a wooden fruit crate.  Two parts of the corner, attached at right angles formed the handle and the “barrel.  A nail was driven into the end of the barrel to hold a thick rubber band.  The angled corner, where the hammer of a real gun would be, was cut on an angle to allow the end of the rubber band, stretched tightly from the front, to hook over the small piece of wood.

The trick was to pull the rubber band to the back, hook it over the wood, aim and push the end of the band off the hook.  The band would fly off the gun and travel four or five feet, the first few at some force.  My simple plan was to bring my gun to school, get behind the kid, and shoot him in the back of the neck. 

This I did.  Except I had no idea of the force with which the rubber band would hit at close range.  The kid let out a howl that could be heard in New Jersey.  He fell to the cement, clutching the back of his neck, writhing in pain.  I was more shocked than scared, thinking that maybe I had killed him.  A circle of curious kids formed around us, broken when Mr. Kennedy pushed his way in to find out the cause of this screaming racket.

There I stood, weapon in hand, looking sheepishly down at my writhing tormentor.  It did me little good to explain that this act was justifiable kid-i-cide, brought on by weeks of pencil pricks to the back of my neck.  Somehow that seemed small potatoes next to the devastating blow I had delivered with my “piece.”  

The inevitable visit to the principal’s office followed.  Miss Walsh, a rather stern but fair lady heard me out, and called for my parents to come and get me.  This was the first, but not the last time my mother was summoned to Miss Walsh’s office to learn of some bit of unacceptable behavior perpetrated by her darling first-born son.  Eight years old and I was developing a rap sheet!

Bullies are a natural part of the flora and fauna in which every kid lives.  They always cross your path at times when you feel most vulnerable or afraid to fight back.  Confronting a bully is one of the few real transformative moments in a kid’s life.  Many future events at the office, in parking lots and supermarket check out lines are influenced by early experiences with the class or town bully.  

The Anderson Avenue bully was in the form of a gang of Irish kids from Woodycrest Avenue.  They would show up unexpectedly, like the James gang, often carrying long wooden sticks covered with pastel chalk.  The idea was to hit the Jewish kids with the chalky slats, making hard to remove splotches of color on our clothes.  These pogroms would sometimes escalate into a bare-knuckle battle, with the two toughest members of each side squaring off in a circle.  Lots of punches and flailing later, the event would dissipate with the arrival of a black and white cop car or a few adults who would burst in to pull the combatants apart.

The Irish kids were bent on revenge against us Jews for the killing of Christ.  Or at least that’s what they said on several occasions.  It was a crime I was not to understand until I was much older.

My earliest lesson in the manly art of self-defense came from a tough kid who lived in our building named Sidney Krepel.  Krepel was a rangy ten years old with a shock of reddish-brown hair that fell over his eyes.  He had developed a practiced flip of the head, tossing the mop of hair away from his face.  This move appealed to me, and I worked hard to mimic it.  

My mother, seeing my choice of role model, sternly warned me “Krepel is a “JD” (1940s abbreviation for juvenile delinquent), “and if you act like him you’ll end up like him.  In reform school.”  This syllogism did not quite work for me, since I could see little connection between tossing my hair back and going to jail.  

Krepel liked me, for some reason, and he decided to teach me a few things.  Principal among them was the power of a well-placed kick.  “If you’re fighting a bigger guy, ya can’t mix it up in close, cause he’s stronger,” Sidney advised.  “What ya want to do is stay out of grabbing distance, and wait for the chance to kick him in the nuts.”

“Kick him in the nuts!”  Holy cow, that was dirty fighting.  “There ain’t no rules ya know. These guys come here lookin’ for a fight.  Give it to ‘em.” Krepel reasoned.
Sidney made a lot of sense.  

Armed with this new weapon, I no longer waited in fear for the next attack from the Woodies.  I felt a new sense of power.  I didn’t have long to wait.  Every Halloween, it was a tradition in our neighborhood to mark up the clothes of any kid within reach with chalk or, better yet, with a large splotch of flour administered with a hard whack from a long nylon stocking, knotted above a ball of the white powder.  These would be swung in wide arcs, much as medieval maces were, landing with a painful thud on the back or leg of the victim.

No one ever thought to ask where this tradition came from, or why it was so important to do it on Halloween.  Like sunrise, snow and summer, it was part of the natural kid order of things.  Of course, the Woodies would not let the day pass without a raid, in force.  We knew they were coming, and this time, I was ready. 
They chose a new route of attack, coming over the hill of the vacant lot near 1045 Anderson, looking for all the world like mad Indians, yelling and waving their slats covered with pastel chalk.  

We joined the attack, swinging our nylon maces.  I watched for an opening, and when one came, I ran into the melee and aimed a kick, just as my mentor had shown me, right between the legs of the largest, meanest kid in the bunch.  It connected with a thud and he went over double, fell to his knees and moaned in pain.

Seeing their leader fallen, some of the gang looked at me.  “He kicked Davey in the balls,” one shouted, and they came after me.  Not having seen a Bruce Lee movie until I was in my twenties, I didn’t think my new weapon was going to do me much good against five angry attackers, so I ran like hell.  I made it into my apartment building, closed the door behind me and retreated to the safety of the locked lobby.

I heard several yelling, “we’ll get you next time,” as they gave up the chase.  I waited for an interminable time before I opened the door and crept down the stoop to peer into the street.  All was quiet.  Like squirrels scattered by a cat, my friends and I slowly gathered in the street and excitedly exchanged battle stories. 
The Woodies never did get me, and by the time I was ten years old, my parents decided to quit the Bronx and move to leafy Montclair, New Jersey.  

My fighting career resumed in fifth grade, at the Rand Elementary school.

This time it was over a girl.  After a week in my new school, a tall kid named Fred Keyes approached me as I walked home.  “Hi, I’m Fred,” he offered.  “What do you think of the girls in the class.?” Gee, I had given no thought to the girls in the class, as “girls,” that is. “I dunno,” I think I said.  “Well don’t get any ideas about Diane Fastigi, she’s my girlfriend,” says Fred. 

Of course, next day I made it a priority to look at Diane Fastigi, and discovered a small, dark and kind of voluptuous girl (if a fifth grade girl can be described as such).  I went over and introduced myself.  “You talk funny,” she observed my Bronx accent.  Embarrassed, I wasn’t aware that I talked any different than anyone else.  But ten years in the Bronx does create certain patterns of speech and pronunciations that are hard to miss. “Cah” for “car,” “daw” for “door,” and a host of other often-mimicked traits of Bronxite speech.

The girls found this kind of exotic, much to Fred Keye’s dismay, and Diane and I began to walk from school.  She was full of questions about living in “Noo Yawk,” and I was only too happy to embellish on the strange and distant land where the Yankees played ball.  Fred Keyes seethed, until he was driven to challenge me to a fight after school.

He was half-a-head taller than I, and the prospect of fighting him scared me not a little.  But Diane Fastigi knew about the challenge, her friend Mildred Ruggerio knew, and so did George Gugliotta, Sammy Cutter and others in the group of new classmates from whom I was desperately seeking acceptance.  

I had to fight Fred Keyes.

At ten years old, a kid’s sense of “doing the right thing” is not very well formed, but something inside was telling me that I should not rely on my secret weapon when I fought Keyes.  I don’t know why, but I felt that if I won that way, the kids would not respect me.  Funny how these values creep into your brain without you ever knowing they are there until the time comes.

So it was to be a stand-up fight on the sidewalk on North Fullerton Avenue, just before Walnut Street, a dead end where Diane Fastigi lived, and far enough from the school not to get caught by the teachers.  We faced each other and so it began.  Fred pushed me on each shoulder with both arms outstretched.  I stumbled back, and pushed him in a similar way.  Each push getting harder and each rush toward each other faster, we eventually began to throw real punches.
I had watched many TV boxing matches with my old man on the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports, a regular Wednesday night program.  

So I took up the stance that I had seen countless times by nameless pugs.  Left hand up in front of my face, right hand cocked back, crouching at the waist.  “POW,” Keyes shot a punch right through my classic pose and hit me square under my eye.  It hurt like hell, and I wanted to cry, but that was out of the question.  I rubbed my face and came in at him with my right shoulder down, like a defensive end going for a sack.  My shoulder hit his gut and he doubled over, the wind knocked out of him.

At that moment there was a shout and the school janitor came running yelling, “Break it up.”  I felt a wave of relief, and made a show of belligerence as I backed away from Keyes, who was gasping for breath.   My nose and cheek throbbed.  But I felt great when Diane came over to me to ask how I was, and invited me to go to her house to recover.

Victory was mine!  Funny thing is that I recall Fred and I became friends after that fight.

But I did take Diane on my first real date, to see The Outlaw, a racy western with Jane Russell that was playing in the Wellmont Theater on Bloomfield Avenue.
After my noble fight for the affections of fair Diane, life was pretty peaceful until seventh grade, when I began to bump heads with Tom Brown.  Tom was huge.  He occupied the locker next to mine in the hallway at Hillside Junior High in Montclair.  I remember him looking like Joe Louis, with a similar skin color and eyes.  He had very large, thick hands and was a taciturn kid.  What bugged either of us, I have no idea. 

For the life of me, I can’t remember what or why, but something got going that drew us toward a showdown. One day, we looked at each other and nodded, like Doc Holiday, in Tombstone, saying to Ike Clanton, “OK, I’m your huckleberry.”
We went at each other with a ferocity that surprised both of us.  Brown had a weight advantage, and probably was stronger, but I was faster.  We wrestled, punched and grabbed.  My arms, chest, neck and back were sore from his hammering. 

Suddenly, I went nuts, grabbed his shirt in both fists, pushed him back and began to bang his head against the steel locker doors.  I was in frenzy, and he began to lose his grip.  Fortunately, the noise brought two men teachers on the run and they pulled us apart.  Both of us began to sob and gasp.  The principal came and took us to the nurse’s office, where we were given ice packs and told to sit quietly and keep our mouths shut.

Brown and I shook hands and in the way of kids, remained on friendly terms for the rest of the time in school.  Whatever it was that had driven us to the showdown was lost in the aftermath.  And it remains a mystery to me to this day. 

Seventh grade was also the year I was faced with the decision or fight or run. I ran. Three or four of us were playing a casual game of fungo baseball when, suddenly, six or seven tough-looking kids, about seventeen or eighteen years old, appeared on the field and ordered us to get off.  My friend, Bob Logan made the unwise decision to tell them to “fuck off.”  They immediately jumped on top of Bob and began to beat him up.  

Even fifty years later, I’ve thought of that moment with some shame.  In my fantasy, I would run to the pile and begin to whack the attackers on the head with my softball bat.  Blood would run and they would give up their attack.  At the moment of truth, however, no such idea came to me. I was sitting on the grass slope waiting for a turn to bat, and it was clear to me that this was not a fight that we could win, or even survive very well.  The other kids in our group came to the same conclusion, and we took off, running like hell to save our skins.  We left poor Bob under the pile getting his lumps.  I found it hard to face Bob again, having abandoned him in his moment of need.  Two years later, Bob and I would share an adventure and a quart of cheap rye whiskey.  

But that’s another story.

I guess bullyism, like alcoholism, is a character flaw that takes hold of a person at an early age and stays with him (or her).  I discovered that all a bully needs is some encouragement that his victim won’t be able to knock him for a loop.  So when this creep decided that I was a good target; I must have fit the bill. 
Every Tuesday, on my way to Hebrew School to learn how to perform the bar mitzvah ritual, a grungy guy, about twice my size, was waiting on the corner.  The minute he saw me, he began to taunt me.  I don’t recall what he said, but the gist was that he was going to break my head or my balls or neck or all of the above.   

Now I realize he was a borderline mental patient.  But at thirteen, all I knew was that he scared the hell out of me, and I wound up walking two blocks out of my way to avoid him.

I never forgot the fear I felt when I saw him, and the humiliation I felt when I felt forced to take another route.  I know this had a lasting effect on me, one that would show up in a later incident.

After a few bouts with booze at the tender age of 14, my parents thought I was in danger of leading degenerate life and accounting for nothing.  So they moved to an upper- middle-class, primarily Jewish community in north Jersey called White Meadow Lake. After research, my mother was satisfied that I would associate with the children of doctors, lawyers and other professionals, go to college and be a macher.  

One week after we moved there, I was attacked by a car full of thugs from the nearby town of Rockaway. Bored out of their skulls, they decided that it would be good fun to drive to the lake and beat up Jews.  At least that’s what they said when they were arrested. 

Fortunately, I was strong enough to fight them off and escape.  Another kid was not so lucky and had a fractured skull as a result.  Later that year (1955), I was fully integrated into the Morris Hills Regional High School; one of a handful of Jews from White Meadow among a gang of auto mechanics and football heroes. 

Athletics was big as Morris Hills, and we often spent an hour or more on the grassy field in back of the school lifting bar bells, hitting tackling dummies and running sprints.  This day I was doing arm curls with ten pound dumbbells when the kid next to me called “hey, are you new here?”  “Yeah.”  “My name is Tony George,” he said.  

Tony George!  This was one of the kids that had jumped me several months ago.  

The brutality and sheer violence of that attack came back to me.  I was walking along on a dark road when they drove up, bright lights in my eyes.  Their car, a Hudson Hornet, stopped, doors opened on all sides, and four kids got out rushing toward me.  Two grabbed my arms and two began to punch me.  I had no idea why, who they were or what they wanted.  Instinctively, I shoved and pushed and broke their grip and ran home.  

I told my father, who called the police and got into the car with two baseball bats to look for them.   We came back to give the cops a description of the car and the names, and one of the cops reacted with a startled look.   

Seems he knew the kids.  One was his son.

So here I am, standing over this kid who had attacked me for no reason other than I was a Jew and he was bored.  And I have a ten-pound bar bell in my hand.  My mind went blank. I raised the bar bell and started to bring it down on his face with the full force of my arm.

Mr. Dikon, the gym teacher standing next to us, saw this happening, and reached out to  grab my arm on the downward arc, stopping an otherwise fatal blow.  

“What the hell are you doing?”  I cried for  a long time, explained what took me over.  The cops weren’t called, and I wasn’t sent to the principal’s office.  George and his friends steered clear of me from then on.

Looking back, I realize had the gym teacher not been there, my life might have taken a very different course at age 15.  Who knows what demons possessed me?  But that’s the way things go.  

I knew then that there was a demon in me, one that could take me over and do terrible things.   And I needed to keep him in his cage.

You never know what will turn out to be a formative moment until you are formed. 

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