As we did every day after lunch in junior high, students scattered across the dusty playing field, clustered in cliques and groups, talking and goofing and socializing. Puberty and hormones flared to the edge of control, emotional and irrational. All thought we were older and more mature than we were. Junior high school was, for most of us, our first exposure to sex and affectionate crushes and going steady, holding hands and making out, beginning to feel out the other sex, figuratively speaking. Talk still substituted for action, but hormones escalated by the week, and bravado changed the tone of conversations as some boys bragged, some girls blushed, and most of the others leaned into the scintillating, if false, details of their friends’ romances. For the most part, the break after lunch was entertainment, the gossip of oneupmanship and verbal daring.
Of course, there were always a few who found themselves trapped between the desire to be part of the scuttlebutt of the day because they made out with Sue or claimed second base with Erica. Those boys demonstrated a higher need to attract attention. Highest on the list was our class comedian, Arnie. Pudgy with dark curls, Arnie always seemed like a guy more likely to make out with a Snickers bar than an attractive girl. Everyone knew it, and so did he. His efforts to be noticed escalated from jokes to physical intimidation, not exactly belligerence, but aggressive attempts to embarrass other boys he viewed as more popular than him.
Approaching our middle teens, many of us tended to express our emerging maturity by dressing nicely. Starched khaki pants with razor sharp creases, starched shirts with collars that could peel your neck, penny loafers (pennies included) and longish, groomed hair, the styles of the times honoring the shaggy-haired Liverpudlian Beatles. We stayed clean except on days when we changed into shorts and tshirts for Phys Ed and had to shower so quickly that our sweat had no time to dry before the next class. On days when we gathered on the old ball field after lunch, we relaxed in groups and talked. We did not play games or invite perspiration.
Apparently, Arnie felt needy, clutching for attention. He did not starch his slacks or his shirts, and his curly hair tended toward bushy more than straight hair did. The effect was an innate and unavoidable sloppiness that many students noticed. He developed a habit of running around the field and sneaking up behind boys to surprise them with a sharp push between the shoulders that snapped their heads back with pain, knocking the boy off balance and sending him to his knees or sprawling spastically to regain his footing. No one was amused. Angry words chased Arnie around the field, but the angry words created a cloud of attention, so Arnie was content to be noticed.
The small group in which I was clustered one day commented on Arnie’s behavior, noting that it was not funny. One friend, facing me in a group as we chatted, gave an alert with a widening of his eyes that Arnie was approaching me from behind. I listened for the patting footsteps and turned in time to block his push and warn him against continuing to hit guys by surprise. As he hurried away, I yelled that he had heard the only warning I intended to give him. Naturally, he laughed it off and slammed another guy in the back. I had a feeling he was not finished with me.
A few minutes later, with a surreptitious head nod from another friend, I was prepared as Arnie came running toward me. I stepped aside to avoid his push then ran him down and hit him hard in the middle of the back just as he had been doing to others. He went sprawling across the dirt and came up angry, covered in dry red clay across his knees and elbows and a flag of dust swiped across his face.
“Damn it! Why’d you do that?”
“I told you to stop.”
“But you pushed me to the ground and now I’m dirty and my elbows are scraped.”
“Seems to me you had it coming.”
“Fight. After school.”
“The alley behind St. Anthony’s. Be there or be chicken.”
“I’ll be there.”
Such was the protocol of challenging a classmate to a fight.
Arnie and I had been in Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts together. We had been friends since elementary school and lived only a couple blocks apart. He was the kind of comedian who could fart on command, either for real or with his hand cupped under his armpit. He had a tree house in a patch of woods behind his home where we could stay up past midnight in our sleeping bags listening to radio broadcasts of the Big Bopper (not knowing he had already died in a plane crash with Richie Valens and Buddy Holly). Arnie’s older brother would buy us a six pack of Schlitz and a pack of cherry cheroots. We were a harmless gang and thought we were cool. But junior high school elicited more and more of our differences, the individual characteristics that would mark our growth and eventually adulthood. Arnie and a few others immersed themselves in rock and roll with nice stereo systems and all the current albums. They bought guitars and drums and began to form bands. They always had a few bags of pot among them and began to sample LSD and other chemicals.
I am not sure that any of that explains why we grew apart, but we did. So, when Arnie dropped the proverbial gauntlet to demand a fight, I was ready to give and receive a beating. I had never been in a fistfight before nor had I ever boxed. I really had no idea what to expect aside from the choreographed moves of the championship wrestlers on late night TV. Arnie weighed more than me, giving him the advantage of mass. I was taller with a theoretically longer reach that should have been a plus on my side of the tape. Who knows who was faster on their feet? I was in good shape from playing football (as was Arnie), so I assumed I could hold my own, and the fight might be fairly matched.
A small group gathered in the alley behind the church with everyone milling about, worried about being seen by neighbors who might call the police or the school, and not knowing the protocol for starting a challenge fight. All of us attended church; some even attended St. Anthony’s. None of us reflected on the irony or inappropriate choice of a church property for a fight. There was no referee or timekeeper waiting to ring the bell. Fights usually were spontaneous, the pugilists reaching a flash point of anger that launched a swinging fist or two. I did not really want to fight, but I had accepted Arnie’s challenge. Arnie did not seem to want to fight either, but he had issued the challenge as the ostensibly injured party, so he had to proceed to preserve his honor. I did not see any matter of honor, but there was no time or purpose for discussion or debate in the middle of the gathered audience.
The observers backed away to give us some room and the sense of a ring.
“Let’s go,” I said.
“You first,” replied Arnie.
“You asked for the fight.” Arnie looked briefly at his feet, an act of shame or regret?
His first blow ignited my sense of self-protection. One fist stinging the side of my face, and the adrenaline surged, any notion of this being a fake battle of skin and bones fled, and I knew that I must retaliate. I wanted to retaliate. I wanted to knock the shit out of Arnie. And I did. I popped him in the jaw, and he returned with a hard swing at my gut. I felt my way around his jabs and connected with his cheek, his nose, his eye brows. All the while, he pounded my torso, one side then the other. I clenched my stomach muscles as each fist connected with my ribs and kept my hands high to protect my head. Although I did not like being hit, the shots to my body did not hurt. Each fist swinging toward my midriff left Arnie’s head exposed. I was taller and my reach longer. Let him hit my stomach and ribs. I slugged facial bone and tissue with knuckles of my right fist and then my left fist. The flailing windmill of angry amateur fists never paused until Arnie managed to catch my left cheek.
“OK, that’s it. Enough.” I stepped away and out of range.
Arnie pounced, “You give up?”
“Sure. This is stupid.”
Arnie sagged with relief, head and shoulders drooping. His supporters slapped his back and lifted his hands by the wrists in triumph. I walked to my bicycle and shook my head. My friends asked if I was okay, and I was.
At school the next morning, students who had not attended the fight wanted to know who won. The halls were buzzing with versions of what had or had not happened. When asked, I was quick to acknowledge Arnie’s victory. “I quit first.”
“Arnie sure looks like he lost.”
“Well, I quit, so he won.” I had not seen him so I did not know what they meant, but the comment was rampant along with questions about how I could have lost when Arnie looked so bad.
I soon passed Arnie on his way to class. He looked away. There was no bravado, no arrogance of victory. His face was a collage of bruises in all shapes and sizes, colors and hues, blacks and blues, greens and sickly yellows. He certainly appeared to be the loser. What no one could see were the rashes of red covering my ribs. Arnie had gotten the worst of the match. My wounds remained secret and private. And I had quit while I was ahead.