A gang of thugs waited for me after school. They’d picked on me through junior high, and though I’d fought their ringleader in a wrestling match, the bullying continued. It was never clear why I was their target. Was it the competition over Mary Alice, the answer to a teenage prayer? Was it because I was the son of a dentist, a terrible terror who could drill or pull the teeth out of a kid’s head?
Dad knew about the bullying and finally bought some boxing gloves. I’d heard stories of his younger days; he was handy with his fists. We listened to fights on the radio and now he would be my trainer.
“Lead with your left, protect your face, bob and weave, look for openings,” Dad said. “Keep your mouth closed and your teeth together; you’re too young for dentures. Breathe through your nose. Save your strength so you’ll have it when you need it.”
We practiced every night after school. He taught me the proper punches and jabs. “No haymakers. Keep your guard up and protect yourself.” The more I learned the more my confidence grew. At night I dreamed boxing, taking on the gang leader and winning. I was Floyd Patterson, Ingemar Johansson, the K.O. Kid.
It was my freshman year. The gang were sophomores. One day on the bus things came to a head. Gruber was a tall and lean country kid. We were in the aisle when he decided to throw his weight around. “Outta the way, rinky-dink. When you see an upperclassman coming, get outta the aisle.” He pushed me toward a seat.
“I’m finding a seat. Back off.” I pushed him hard.
He leaned into my face. “You wanna make somethin’ of it, rinky-dink?”
“Meet me after school,” he snarled through chaw-stained teeth.
I put on my meanest face, puffing up like an alley cat facing a junkyard dog. “I’ll be there. Lemme know where you wanna get whipped.” I paused. “By the way, you should do something about that barn breath if you want to get the girls.”
My comment slowly hit home. “I oughta kick yer smart ass right now. You’d like me to get throwed out for fightin’ on school grounds but I ain’t so damn dumb to fall for that.”
“A bath every couple weeks wouldn’t hurt either.”
“See you after school,” Gruber hissed, marching back to his seat.
News of the fight spread through our little town faster than a hopped-up Chevy at the local drag strip. It would not be wrestling. It was understood the fight would be fisticuffs, no gloves, no quarter, just John L. Sullivan bare-knuckle.
A gang sympathizer drove me to the stockyards in his Corvair; he wanted to make sure I didn’t chicken out. There was no talk on the ride past the Cedarview Cemetery to the cattle-shipping yard. I was pumped up but felt calm. This was my chance to end the tortuous tyranny and mental misery. It was showtime and the scrappy kid in me was confident.
When we arrived, it looked like half the town was there, hanging on the corral fence. A whiskey bottle passed among cowboy hats: some of those sauce-saturated saps would lose their wages today.
My adversary grinned like a fool as I crawled through the fence. Gruber was swaggering around, rolling up his sleeves, spitting in his hands, pushing his red hair behind his ears. There was no small talk. We squared off. The crowd was cheering and shouting, “Kick his ass.”
I knew I was considered the underdog. What did some dentist’s kid know about fighting? No one knew I was ready. It was my moment, a long time coming. Tough Guy was going to take a fall. The gang’s days were done.
We moved toward each other. I licked dry lips. The crowd roared; they wanted blood. I was at Madison Square Garden, people at home crouching by their radios. There would be no Marquess of Queensberry Rules here.
I did a few air jabs, danced to my left, bobbing and weaving, fists up to protect my face, elbows tight to my sides. I led with my left, looked for openings, a package ready to explode. It became clear that Gruber had not been trained in the fine art of boxing. His stance was as loose as his big mouth. I felt sorry for him but it didn’t last long as I remembered his abuse and my mission – to walk tall out of this stockyard arena, leaving Gruber lying in the cow pies.
He threw a right, a left, a hook, another left. I blocked his punches. He tossed a couple of wild haymakers as I feinted and held back, saving myself, letting him wear down and drop his guard. I threw a punch now and again to remind him I was there, test his counters. He connected on some and I connected on others. It was back and forth: we both had long arms. My face burned. I tasted blood. Two steps backward, out of reach, I took big gulps of air, shook it out, then moved back, teeth clenched.
My arms were tired but my will was stronger than a buckin’ bronc’s. I looked for an opening. Who was in better shape? Who would weaken first, drop his guard? I saw Gruber’s face was more open and moved in, working left. My plan was a combination, as soon as his right dropped enough.
I faked right so he would counter to his left and open his right, and there it was, the unguarded opening on the right side of his face. I took a quick step in and slammed a hard left to his jaw. Red hair flew one way as his head snapped the other. He dropped his guard. His face was exposed and I threw my upper body weight into a right cross, straight to his nose. He went down. The left jab-right cross combo had done its job.
“Get up Gruber, I got more for ya. Get up.”
He did not get up. It was over. He’d had it.
I crawled back through the corral fence. The spectators looked at me, eyes wide. They seemed shocked. I smirked at their long faces, wondering who had lost money. Town had just kicked Country’s ass.
It was quiet in the Corvair as the gang groupie took me home. Was he rethinking his loyalties?
My mother saw me coming up the driveway. “Oh my God, David! Your face!”
Dad was driving in. He rolled down the window and smiled. “Who won?”
“I did.” I beamed, my open mouth full of intact teeth.
His smile widened.
At school the next day, I felt reborn. In spite of my puffy face and the looks from students and teachers, I was happy as a kid with his first car.
Gruber’s wrist was in a cast. He’d broken it on my head.
That was the end of my problem with bullying and the beginning of another, more pleasant challenge: Mary Alice. She’d heard I’d won, her girlfriend told me, and said she thought I was cute.
David L. Walker attended the University of Nebraska Art Department. He served as Scout Dog handler in Vietnam and subsequently traveled in Europe, Africa, South America, and Mexico, where he studied Pre-Columbian Art. He is a studio and plein air painter. As a heavy equipment operator with the Sonoma County Water Agency, he restored endangered species habitats. A cancer survivor, he is now writing his life stories and restoring a classic Corvette.