When I was six and seven years old, The Beatles broke up, Manson was convicted, Apollo 13 nearly crashed into the moon, the American War Against Vietnam was grinding on with my eldest brother soon to be facing the draft, and I learned to hate school with great passion, more so every day.
On a spring afternoon, our class went to a birthday party outside of our first grade confines for Holly Mugwort at her family’s house in Sharonville, somewhere off Thornview. A couple dozen kids were contained within a fenced-in back yard, and supplied with plenty of cake and ice cream to keep us wound up for games like pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey and breaking open a pinata. Ms. Napes had arranged the event along with Holly’s mother, and those two along with another few adults kept their eyes on us from the periphery.
My bully/tormentor/frenemy Joey J. was there, and I was inexorably drawn into his orbit. As the latest of his acolytes, I was usually the butt of his jokes and jostling, but would sometimes find relief when new victims were selected from among the weakest in the herd. I was encouraged to pile on as well at that point, and sometimes did, seeking acceptance from our small group and compensation via the pain of others for all the bullying I had suffered.
This time, Holly herself was the target, in her own home, at her own birthday party. She was possibly the most frail and weak child in our class, almost translucently white and so thin as to appear emaciated. Joey made some sort of first grader joke at her expense as she emerged from the kitchen door bearing a tray of cupcakes. She heard and stopped on the steps, but did not seem terribly upset. She was probably used to it from Joey.
I laughed, along with Joey and the others, and may have added a remark of my own, I’m not sure. I then saw Holly’s face dissolve into dismay, and tears well up as she looked around frantically for some place to put the tray. She passed the tray gently onto Ms. Napes, then ran back into the house crying. Ms. Napes stared daggers at me, then castigated the group of us. She and Holly’s mother followed Holly inside and disappeared for a few minutes.
We in Joey’s gang did not give in to remorse, a remorse I felt achingly in my gut. Instead, we joked around some more, and bluffed our way through some proud boasting of our successful rebelliousness towards this lame school outing. Ms. Napes emerged and came straight towards me. She asked me to follow her into the kitchen.
“I’m very disappointed in you, Adam Delay. You don’t have to behave that way, and I know you know better. On Holly’s birthday! Don’t you realize how sick she is? Don’t you know that Holly likes you, and you hurt her feelings?”
Well, I knew her feelings were hurt, but I did not know she liked me in any special way. I also did not know how sick she was, nor what that meant. I muttered some excuse, and Ms. Napes insisted I apologize. She walked me down the short carpeted hallway. Holly’s door was closed but I could hear her crying within. I said “sorry” a few times to the door, but Holly would not come out.
The party ended soon thereafter, and we all made our way back to school in order to be dismissed for the day, everyone except Holly. Holly did not come back to school for the rest of the year. I heard over the summer that she was in the hospital, and then that she had died. We made some sort of card for the family at the start of second grade in the fall and everyone signed it, saying sorry all over again.
Joey J. was in my class again and I continued to be bullied. I think I tried to break free of him, but this only caused him to challenge me to a fight after school on Thornview Street, the usual place for this sort of thing.
I accepted, but then chickened out. I evaded him after school by brazenly hopping the fence in front of the school and cutting through somebody’s back yard to Woodleigh Lane. I then managed to avoid him for a few more days, varying my route, sticking close to teachers and aids during our free time, but I was being taunted widely for my cowardice.
So I agreed, again, to an afternoon fight on Thornview.
When school let out, maybe a hundred or so kids would stream out and walk down the broad sidewalk to the lower entrance, where sidewalks took off in three directions on both sides of the street. Most of the kids walking out onto Thornview would cross straight into the suburban grid of small square houses making up that part of Sharonville. Some would turn left into similar suburban territory, but with bigger houses, downhill towards their downtown.
This was the periphery of the outer world to me, the beginning of everything that was not my neighborhood around Woodleigh Lane.
Normally, only a dozen or so kids would turn right and walk uphill along Thornview, towards the more sparsely populated border area with the Blue Ash and Evendale townships, along Plainfield Road — my way home. Now, there were at least that many kids, probably more, lingering in my path along the right sidewalk. I saw them milling around just a few houses up, as I was coming down the hill towards the transition from school property.
Among them, the only real threat came from Joey, and what I thought of as his gang — one or two other kids like me who he’d domineered into hanging out with him.
The rest of them, including a lot of older kids, were there to watch. I slowed my pace as I approached the intersection, amazed at the turnout.
I decided this was crazy. They had not immediately seen me, so I moved to cross to the other side of Thornview, hoping to disappear into the rings of mid-Sharonvillle suburbs and then circle back up to Plainfield.
In the long lead up to this point, through all of first grade and now into second, I had completed this maneuver a number of times to avoid Joey and his unpredictable antics. Likewise, I had sometimes just run up Thornview as fast as I could, varying which side of the street I would use to throw him off. Over the next year as we used our bikes, our pursuits would become more dramatic.
Of course there were the alternate options to get home, all with their idiosyncratic pitfalls. There was the time-consuming and circuitous bus trip, with its proven potential for randomly violent seatmate peril. There was taking the upper entrance and then treading gingerly along the narrow Glendale-Milford shoulder, which I’d been warned off, in order to get to Woodleigh. Or, there was hopping the fence bordering school property and cutting through somebody’s large yard. I had been doing this successfully for a few days, but there was a recurring problem of being chased by dogs.
Regardless, I was fully committed to the lower path now.
And I was scared beyond reason.
Though I was in a crowd of maybe ten other kids in the crosswalk of the lightly trafficked street, I was in plain view and less than 50 feet away from a group of people who were eagerly awaiting their afternoon entertainment — me and Joey. My desperate hope that I could somehow escape them proved pure fantasy. They saw me almost instantly and shouted.
I froze. After only a moment, I switched gears and accepted my fate. Confusing the vaguely attentive crossing guard, I turned around and decided to put the best possible face on my second attempt to chicken out. Fooling nobody, I walked up to them as if, “Oh, there you are.”
They solemnly parted to let me into the ceremonial ring.
In the center of the circle I felt weak and almost unable to raise my arms. Joey started pushing me in the shoulder, taunting me to fight back. I pushed him lamely. He laughed and punched me in the face. Stunned, I stepped back and he punched me, in the stomach. I fell down and he knelt next to me and pummeled me a few times, not too hard now, then stood and kicked at me once, in comic disgust, barely making contact.
The older kids laughed a little, but were obviously disappointed and disgusted. It was not a good fight. My cigar box school supply kit was crushed underfoot, my homework papers scattered, and everyone departed as I just lay there with my eyes mostly closed.
When I thought everyone was gone, I sat up.
A couple girls around my age stood on the other side of the street, obviously concerned. I looked at them in cold fury as I gathered my stuff, further shamed by their pity.
I walked quickly home, but felt the eyes of the few remaining upper Thornview walkers on my back so cut through some stranger’s small yard, outrunning a small dog between low metal fences. I exited into the woods that bordered my neighborhood. I stayed there for a while, alternately fuming and crying, kicking at woodpiles and swinging branches as hard as I could against tree trunks.
Well into third grade, I remained locked in Joey’s sphere of influence, though I made some tentative steps towards finding other friends and activities. In school, we were given some latitude for our own projects in art class and I decided to create a battleship, based on my memories of the Norfolk tour, as well as all the Popeye cartoons and Victory At Sea shows I’d seen on Channel 19. I also found some relevant picture books in the school library. Using rounded scissors, I cut out a cardboard frame and stapled it together. I then brought in a thick roll of silver duct tape, which I’d pilfered from our garage, and taped it together to make a reasonable approximation of a metal plated vessel.
My efforts impressed my classmates and, for once, I appreciated their attention, still blushing but with less terror. Kirk McCartney — who with a name like that (Captain Kirk / Paul McCartney) could not help but be the coolest kid in school — complimented me and asked me to help out on his ship, an aircraft carrier. The other cool, big, longhaired kids, like Jack Winter and Vince Pollaco, now spoke to me as well. I grunted and mumbled out my bashful responses as best I could.
Soon enough, many other kids were copying my efforts and we had an art class war fleet readying for battle. Unfortunately, Joey’s production did not have the dominating effect he was seeking, and he sought to take it out on me.
One afternoon at last bell, I ran — well, walked as quickly as allowed — from Mrs. Carlson’s class to retrieve my second ship, a sleek destroyer, from my art locker to take home for some finishing touches. I wasn’t the only one with this idea, and I ran into Joey just outside the art class door.
“Hey, nice work,” he said. He approached to inspect and I held out the ship obligingly. He swatted it out of my hands. “Oops.” He pretended to stumble, and stomped on it. “Woooops! Oh, I’m so sorry. I don’t know what I…”
The glass door to the courtyard, just outside the art classroom, opened. Vince, Jack, and Kirk stood in the bright light.
“Hey, Adam,” Kirk said. He looked at Joey, down to the demolished destroyer, then back to me. “What’s going on? You alright?”
“Uh, yeah. Sure,” I said. “I dropped this one, but it needed redoing anyway.” I bluffed, but there was no hiding the strained choking effort of my words, the tears that had been welling up in my eyes.
“Whatever,” Joey said. “I’m outta here.” He started to walk out the door past the trio of slightly bigger kids.
“I don’t think so,” Kirk said. Jack and Vince blocked the doors and Kirk came further into the hall. “The hell, Joey?” Kirk held his hands in front of him, towards the cardboard and duct tape wreck, palms up, questioningly.
Joey stood his ground and didn’t say anything right away. Finally, he turned his head to look at me. “It’s him,” he said, nodding in my direction. “He was trying to pick a fight with me, the little punk. I didn’t want to hurt him, you know, the stupid tard. He swung his damn boat at me and I had to knock it down. I didn’t wanna.”
Kirk shook his head, not buying it.
Joey looked at me again and said, “Ask him yourself. He’s not gonna lie. He’ll tell ya what really happened.”
They all looked at me. “Well,” I paused, unsure how to proceed. “Doesn’t matter anyway. Like I said, I was gonna redo this one. I gotta go. I’m getting the bus today.” I said this at such low volume I’m not sure how much they heard. I gathered the flattened cardboard vessel and tried to push my way out to the doors. Joey pushed me slightly into Kirk, who tried to grab my arm.
“Hold on, I’m just trying…”
“I said I have to go.” Frantic to escape, to keep from letting them see me cry — and to avoid a long, awkward, and vulnerable wait for the late bus — I swung my elbow to get free of Kirk and accidentally hit him square under the jaw.
Jack and Vince tensed.
Joey hooted. “See. See. That’s what he tried to do to me, crazy muh-thah!”
“Fuck you!” I yelled. “Let me out!” I tried to push past Vince and Jack. They forced me back inside towards Kirk and Joey, but I would not turn around and still faced the door.
There was a hand on my shoulder, trying to turn me. “It’s okay, Adam. Just… “
I slapped the hand off and, with my eyes closed, turned and pushed hard against the body in front of me, then turned back and tried to bulldog my way out. As Kirk stumbled into the art lockers behind me, Vince and Jack grabbed me easily, turned me around, then held me squirming upright to confront the now united duo of Kirk and Joey. I was crying, but desperately trying to stop the tears with fierce thoughts of taking on the world with Kung Fu’s righteous anger, finally unleashed on the hapless cowboys in the final scene. I kicked the air.
“Jesus, Adam,” Kirk said. “Cool it.” I stopped squirming and squinted, trying to maintain the protective rage I had summoned and keep the last of my teardrops from rolling down my cheeks. “Now,” Kirk continued, “I don’t think you meant to hit me…”
“Oh yes he did! You don’t know him, Kirk. He’s…”
“Shut up, Joey.”
“He won’t say, ‘Sorry,’ that one. Not Adam,” Joey looked at me and winked briefly. “He knows he’d be a pussy if he did, and never live it down. I don’t think you should take it off him, even if he did, Kirk. Look, he’s probably gonna pee his pants, just like he did in class last year.”
I thought I heard Jack and Vince snickering right behind me. It wasn’t fair. I peed in first grade, not last year. I thought everybody forgot.
“Let me GO!” I yelled and thrashed free, but only to stand right in front of Kirk.
“Just say ‘Sorry,’ Adam. Then we can…”
“No, why, GOD! I didn’t do ANYTHING!”
“One more chance,” Kirk said.
“Ooooooo,” Joey murmured appreciatively. More snickering from behind.
I let out a kind of perplexed guffaw, but stood there shaking my head, the tears starting to bubble forth again. I said nothing, finally managed a quiet “Fuck you.”
“Okay, then, half an hour. Out on Thornview. Up the street.”
I remained standing, speechless and motionless. Joey said, “Oh, man,” and ran out the doors between Jack and Vince. They joined Kirk over by the lockers, retrieving a couple of their ships and talking among themselves. I stumbled out into the light, dropped my crumpled destroyer on the grass. I reentered the school on the other side and, though I never felt safe there, I went to the bathroom for a while to try to be alone and figure out what to do, sitting in the closed stall and fretting.
I left my books and school supplies in my desk in Mrs. Carlson’s room — no sense in having them scattered again by spectators — and sat in the room, the overhead fluorescents off but with plenty of grey light coming in from the windows. I could hear an after-school club meeting in another classroom down the hall. Timing it so I would not arrive too early, I got up after some agonizingly long minutes and made my way down the school driveway to Thornview. At the bottom of the hill, I looked to my right and saw a group of kids in just about the same spot as where Joey had beat me up a year and a half earlier.
As I approached, the chanting started: “Fight. Fight. Fight. Fight. Fight.” Kirk took off his coat, and jerked his head backwards for me to do likewise. Walking downhill, I had hoped that my heavy garment, donned in the morning due to a showery late winter day, would offer some protection from the violence to come. No such luck. I complied with Kirk’s gestured command and then, inspired by my martial arts TV viewing, took a crouching, foot forward stance.
Kirk said, “Hey, no kicking.” Several kids in the circle laughed. It started quickly, with little fanfare. I actually got in one or two flailing blows, before Kirk floored me with a series of quick jabs followed by a round house. I’d disappointed the crowd once again with a weak effort, ending the bout much too quickly for their liking. They delivered disparaging remarks as they started to disperse. Kirk stood over me, then held out his hand to help me get up.
Joey had stayed behind and made eye contact with me, as he shook his head slowly from side to side. “What a pussy,” he said, a twinge of melancholy clouding his features. It couldn’t look good for him that a member of his gang folded so quickly.
Kirk went up to him and pushed him hard in the chest. “Wha…” Joey sputtered.
“You and me, tomorrow. Same place. Same time,” Kirk McCartney said, all Marshall Dillon-like. “I never liked you, Jerkhead. Now you gave me an excuse.”
News of the fight was much whispered around school the next day. Though we studied his features for any reaction during lunch and recess, Joey said nothing about it to Ricky, Tom, and I. After school, we three showed up together and joined a bigger crowd, at what I came to think of as the Thornview boxing rink. We waited, and waited. The crowd had begun to disperse before finally Kirk called it.
He laughed and started walking across the street with Jack and Vince on either side. “Hey, Adam,” he called out. “You wanna come? We’re goin’ to Jack’s house, maybe play some wiffle ball.”
I was at a loss. This was unexpected, and I did not know the implications. Was I being invited to join another “gang”? Did Kirk think he was my new boss now? Where the hell did Jack even live?
“Uh, no thanks. See ya,” I took off quickly back towards school, even though home was in the other direction. Maybe I could still get into class and retrieve my books and supplies. Walking back up the hill, I realized I was not crying this time, like I did after the last fight. Still, I was upset and unnerved. I decided not to go back into school and risk some further weird social interaction. I cut left through the front lawn of the school and headed for the gate to Jeff’s yard, which I had not used since he had clocked me that fall.
I looked before I unlatched, and turned to make a run for Woodleigh after I bolted it back.
Rudolf, the dog.
I’d forgotten, as he had been inside his little house. He bounded towards me but was cut off, mid-bound, by his chain. Jeff and another kid his age came running out from the other side of the house. They’d must have been in the front.
“Hey, Jeff,” I waved over his choking and sputtering dog.
“Ah, hey, Adam. How’s it goin?”
“Alright, you know.” His dog was still making a racket, pawing to get at me, the intruder. “Sorry about…” I blanked on Rudolf’s name but gestured to him. “I was trying to use the, uh, old shortcut.”
“No problem. Rudolf, down!” Rudolf ignored Jeff and Jeff gestured for me to hurry past. “Hey Adam, this is my cousin…”
“Nice to meetcha! Sorry, Jeff, but I gotta run!” I didn’t think I had much of a shiner, but wanted to conceal my latest fight wounds anyway. Especially after my mom went after him for my last. “I’ll see ya later, though.” I ran all the way home.
At home, I was able to forget my worries through an interesting new TV movie: The Six Million Dollar Man. Heath, the bastard son from The Big Valley, was now an astronaut turned reluctant cyborg-spy. Word was, they might turn it into a TV show. I was hoping. My dad and oldest brother Stewart, when they were around, were much more interested in the TV news about something called Watergate, which had to do with the president somehow. My brother Derek and I still managed to get significant TV time for all our shows, while our sister Suzie stayed away, living her majorette lifestyle.
Over the coming weeks at school, Joey just kind of faded away. The one highlight was when I saw Ricky Yelp push him back, into lockers, over by the gym. I knew it was over for him then. And I was free. Kirk did not seek to press any advantage with me, and it turned out he was moving soon anyway. A bunch of us took our boats out to the upper pond in Sharon Woods, and though I tried to embed some fireworks in mine and doused the deck with lighter fluid, by launch time it had dissipated and I discovered that duct tape did not burn well. One of my ships floated respectably for a while, but my new destroyer toppled over.
I began to loosen up, and did make it over to Jack’s for wiffle ball. He was in my Cub Scout Den, along with another kid from school named Tyler David. They lived next door to each other. Though it was a pretty scary ride along Plainfield Road to their Sharonville neighborhood, which was set back from the rest of town and bordered hillbilly Blue Ash, I started to complete the circuit there on a regular basis, to the point where I began to feel somewhat comfortable and cautiously happy.
AJD has been a sailor, scribe, and bookseller, but started out as an angsty, guilt-ridden child growing up in the American Midwest. This work contains three excerpts adapted from an unpublished memoir, Evendale, Part One. Most of the names were changed.