Back in the dark bunk after Vertigo, Alan, wavy blonde hair slicked back like the ‘hood’ he was trying to be (it was 1958), opened his big switchblade and stuck it in my arm saying, “You keep away from Iris, understand?” I nodded (I suppose), sleepily, as people will with certain kinds of threats, and partly grasped that what he was saying was no doubt important to know for my health. But what I remembered best was that the knife didn’t go in. It must have been too dull.
To be sure I felt I was not in an ideal bargaining position. But that position was moot a few days later when
Alan and Butch, the latter a big African-American kid from Mamaroneck in Westchester County, were kicked out of camp for being disruptive or something. In any case, by then I had a different “girlfriend” but in the fall I did get together with Iris once. She lived in my neighborhood but was too ‘observant’ (in her Jewishness), or maybe just too something-or-other, for me. So much for Iris.
Okay, but if it put me in danger, what was so good about this so-called Work Camp? Ah! What was good was that the system of repression was weak. During the year, in school, you as an individual were too weak to fight the authorities; you’d always lose. And you were too young or too inexperienced to organize your fellow oppressed, which might have resulted in some victories. In camp — with no Vice Principal roaming the halls — you could do almost anything.
So Alan could threaten 14-year-olds with switchblades and get away with it. But then maybe the camp authorities wanted to set an example, to intimidate and in effect discipline the other campers; if true, Alan and Butch were scapegoats.
Did you wonder what was the “Work” in “Work Camp”? — and hey, what exactly happened with Iris that got Alan so steamed?
First the “Work”: Some days we built structures — bunks for campers and the like. The hard part was already done by carpenters — professionals — the part we could have learned some serious skills from… We also waited on tables, each work-camper scheduled to wait every other meal. Okay.
But in the evening we got to play, to have fun. We’d have performances and contests, maybe a ping pong tournament, or couples squeezing Under the Broom. But the best times of all were when the thirty of us squeezed into the back of the open blue truck, designed for cattle, and headed off to the town of Fleischmanns to see a movie, like The Nun’s Story or, even better, Vertigo. We enjoyed the open air, sure, it was warm enough. But the closeness to the other bodies — the bodies of several girls — was an exciting novelty. And Iris and I were pretty well pressed against each other, my eyes met her eyes and I saw in her face something like beauty…
And Alan, evidently, saw something he didn’t like.
So what could I have learned from Iris and Alan to help me grow, something that would benefit me in my adult years?
Well, first, that by being unaware, failing to pay adequate attention, one might ignorantly, “innocently,” distracted by some female beauty or imagined openness, stumble into a dangerous situation. And on the other hand, that danger isn’t necessarily deadly; you might get away with it because, say, the knife is dull. But in matters of the heart or when external blockages conflicted with powerful desire I was a slow learner. I learned only that the knife might be dull.
Episode 2. The Ice-Fight.
Now let’s go back to the beginning. When I was in first grade — I’d had two years of a “progressive” nursery school, no kindergarten — I had a friend named Donald. He lived on Goethals Avenue at the far end of Parkway Village. (We were later taught that George Washington Goethals was somebody important in building the Panama Canal early in the century in which we lived.) I should back up even farther to say Parkway Village was a development of garden apartments built in 1947 for families of U.N. delegates and workers at the Secretariat. And with the near part only half a block from my house, this was an opportunity for me, and in certain periods most of my friends were Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, French and Swedish. Their parents’ apartment rents, in this Golden Age, were subsidized. Ten years later, in my high school years, the rents were allowed to “float” and all the U.N. people were driven out, ushering in a Silver Age. (Please note that I’ve discussed the Parkway Village situation at greater length in my Tirade, “Against ‘Give Me the Boy for a Year.’”)
The apartments also housed a few American families whose rents were unsubsidized, and my friend Donald’s family was one of these. (In the later, Silver Age, a different Donald in a different American family, Donald Malament, lived in the same area, and we played softball there and his mother made us lemonade with real lemons, which I’d never before had. This other Donald, now a dentist in Israel, claimed that the famous writer Bernard Malamud was a relative.)
Anyway, back in January of first grade, the original Donald and I got into a fight, as friends will, on the vacant ice-covered lot along Goethals Avenue. There having been rain, or snow that melted followed by freezing, we had shards of ice to break off and throw. In the course of affairs Donald achieved a direct hit on my forehead, both drawing blood and leaving a scar that has persisted into what we euphemistically call middle age. If I look very very carefully I can still perceive the outlines of that ice-chunk… But this is only one of my first ‘wounds of war.’
So what did I learn from the Ice-Fight to help me in my adult years?
That sometimes who won or who lost may be only a footnote. In the Ice-Fight in fact the main thing was that both fighters got cut up, and such injuries created a history: there was no reset button, no going back or do-over to restore my initial, entirely smooth forehead. History meant loss, permanent loss.
And then there was my first-grade experience with Pierre, who punched me in the stomach just after I’d consumed my half-pint of milk at the beginning of lunch, opening a semi-lifelong rivalry that included a grudge boxing match ten years later, inspired by the Patterson-Johansson fight, and a competition over a smart, simpática cheerleader a little later. All that could be a Tirade in itself that you’re just going to have to wait for. Will first gauge the level of reader demand… But hold your horses, fellas and gals — we’re still at age 5 and it’s time to move!
Episode 3. Rock-Throwing at Girls.
Still in public school, there was a period in third grade when I would engage in long-distance rock-throwing fights with the Catholic girls that lived up on Union Turnpike. That was before they built the whorehouse motel for the 1964 World’s Fair when I was already gone to college. Before all that there were still loads of fun ragweed stalks from which, according to my mother, you could catch hay fever, which then could be triggered by things like goldenrod. There were also trees that grew “peas” which we would harvest as peashooter ammunition.
But beyond the ragweed and pea-trees and across a valley and what might have been an abandoned road, then across a small dirt parking area were two private houses which these same nameless girls presumably called home. And in a certain period we would try to bombard each other across great distances with whatever rocks could be thrown that far. Once I was hit just above and toward the outside of my left eye, causing considerable bleeding and an easy-to-find lifelong scar. Only now for the first time, close to sixty years later, does it occur to me how an impact just an inch different could have been a life-changing event. Why haven’t I thought of that before? Well, it’s my nature to imagine nothing very bad will happen to me, especially nothing worse than average. As though I’m somehow protected by a law of averages. Regardless of my actual experiences… (See also my recent Tirade, “Against Relying on Luck for Health and to Avoid Injury & Death.”)
In spite of my bleeding, scarring and the danger the girls’ rock-throwing posed to my eyesight, it was the mother of one of the girls who appeared at our front door one day to complain about me. I suppose my parents handled it tactfully and the rock-throwing subsided long enough for us to find other appealing diversions.
So what did I begin to learn from my long-distance war on the little Catholic girls?
Well, doesn’t look like I learned much about danger any more than I had from Alan’s dull knife or Donald’s ice-chunk missiles. Not only did the threat of permanent blindness fail to cross my mind until a few minutes ago! — neither was there an iota of concern about how I could have gravely maimed either of the adversary girls I was throwing rocks at. What about the apparent injustice of a girl’s mother visiting my parents when — as far as I was concerned — I was the injured one? Yes, I think this was the beginning of a very hard lesson about unexpected complications and outcomes not consistent with poetic justice. Ultimately, perhaps, the episode contributed to my later understanding that a belief in any sort of victimhood might not be the best guide to action. Victimhood does not pay and justice could be poetic from someone else’s point of view…
Episode 4. Well, Not Exactly a Fight, But I Still Got Blamed.
Some years later we were playing at a construction site up on our side of Union Turnpike. This would have been just adjacent to and to the east of the Catholic girls’ homes, if they had not by then been bulldozed. The site was to be a gas station and “we” was my neighbor Ned, a year younger, and Johnny Janopolous, maybe two years younger than Ned, who always tried to hang with us. It was the weekend, no work was being done, all was quiet at the site. There was a deep pit for a tank, three or four feet across and ten or twelve feet deep, with a wooden ladder in it. Ned immediately scampered down into the pit.
When was this exactly? Well, it had to be at least 1950 and maybe as late as ’52 or ’53. The three houses that Mr. Riley the contractor built across the slag-surface street from us — a few years before it was paved (My mother, when she saw paving and road work being done, would say “They’re having an election”) — were finished in 1950 and Johnny’s family occupied the westernmost and fanciest of these. To figure out the year of the episode, we need to calculate that Johnny’s father, a fascist, had first to be driven out of Greece during the civil war, and it had to be before his fascist friends made it safe for him to move elsewhere, no doubt finally relocating back to Greece during the next right-wing ascendancy. In any case, they lived on our block only a few years.
Okay, so Ned’s down in the pit, I’m looking down into it on one side, Johnny Janopolous is on the opposite. Then I notice Johnny has a big smooth rock in his hand and I fear he is about to drop it into the pit on Ned!! In alarm I try to stop him. But I hit his wrist and I watch — unable to intervene — as the rock seems, amazingly, to hesitate — and then begins its careening descent, disappearing into the narrow brown-dirt pit.
Johnny claimed afterward that he was only going to throw the rock across the pit, not into the hole. Be that as it may, Ned came running up the ladder, bleeding and in pain he’d likely not experienced before. Indeed he was taken to the hospital — it wasn’t just talk! — with a true hole in his head and I, however unfairly, in my view, was blamed.
So what did I begin to learn from the Hole-in-the-Head fiasco?
Now my perception of injustice begins to come into its own. Here my doing the right thing got me in trouble — and, in spite of my good intentions, created a victim. Was I responsible? Wasn’t I? Was Johnny? Assuming Johnny was truthful about his intentions, didn’t misperception or misunderstanding make me responsible, regardless of my intention? But taking the point of view from, say, Mars, is there such a thing as an “accident”? When my late wife, in her Singapore childhood, skinned her knee in a fall, her amah¹ scolded the responsible pavement…
Episode 4b. More Ned.
Ned, by the way, was a pipe-banger. He loved to acquire these pipes, which would be stored in what we called the alley, between our houses. Among the few junky trees, clods of grass and inauthentic, city dirt, Ned would bang these pipes together, sometimes for what seemed an hour. He also liked to play mumble-de-peg with his big awkward pen knife. This knife threatened no danger, though it was only a little smaller than the model deployed against my upper arm by that self-styled tough-guy Alan in Work Camp.
Though Ned shot up to a great height like his father before him, until he was 12 I was decidedly bigger and stronger. And I suppose I often found Ned doing “bad things.” One time, on the sidewalk that ran in front of our two houses, he carried out one of the worst of these “bad things” (I imagine — don’t remember what it was) and was running to reach the front door of his house and safety! Before he could quite attain that all-protecting home base, I picked up a brick lying nearby and — believing a thrown object could go faster than a person could run — threw it in his general direction. I had neither intention nor expectation of actually hitting him. I was merely expressing disapproval of his behavior — nothing more. But, as fate would have it, just as he climbed the third and last step to the door, the brick bounced off the house wall and bashed Ned in the shin!!
Uh-oh… Perhaps I said, before anybody could think anything, I didn’t mean to hit him, which was in fact true. I retreated to my own house at a somewhat hurried walk, seeking safety myself. I indeed reached the vestibule but behind me Ned’s father Alvin entered at almost the same moment — furious — and launched his fist at my ear!
For the next few days I pretended to have trouble hearing, and let that report be known throughout the neighborhood. This felt like a natural way to fight back, hoping that Ned’s father Alvin would feel sorry for what he had done and perhaps he’d even apologize. My father was shorter (and, I discovered years later, a lot older), so I didn’t imagine that he would or could beat Alvin up. The hearing problem seemed the best way. But Alvin failed to offer me an apology, nor did I ever hear of Alvin apologizing to my parents… Gradually things returned to “normal.”
So what did this encounter with adult rage correspond to in later life? If throwing bricks or a box on the ear were analogous to references to the coming of the Messiah in the Old Testament, then what was analogous to Jesus’s appearance in the New? Well, nobody threw bricks any more, luckily, or punched me in the head. No one climbed down into a dirt pit at a construction site for entertainment. So what was the continuity? How about the element of “blaming the good guy” — the hero? True, I threw a brick, worse than anything we know of Jesus doing, but who imagined it would ever wind up hitting Ned’s shin? But intentions notwithstanding, wasn’t I the responsible one? Neither I nor anyone remembered what Bad Thing Ned was carrying out, the thing that provoked the brick, however innocently thrown. Perhaps I tried to see this attack on me as another case of being ‘framed and scapegoated,’ as in the hole-in the head incident. But that didn’t fit all that well here — not exactly…
Scapegoating & Privilege.
Well, as far as the adult world has gone, no doubt there’s plenty of scapegoating, though I don’t recall being targeted that way after, say, 1961. I remember being hassled by the police late at night with my friends, sitting on the loading platform of a long-closed liquor store and just chewing the fat, no threat to anyone. The cop kept asking me where I lived and — fearing to worry my parents if I gave their address — I motioned with my arm, saying “Over there.” After two of these he grabbed me by the neck and I spit out the house number and street…
But were we really scapegoats? To us it seemed we — the so-called Smart Kids — were being harassed because of recent practices of the Alans and other knife-wielding thugs-in-training. Or was it that those blue-collar street cops resented these college-bound, middle class, privileged kids, imagining they can sit anywhere and do anything? “Where do you live?” — which side of the tracks — could be a way to determine your class and status, an early form of today’s profiling.
Internally, the Smart Kids label meant only that, once Sputnik went up, we were deprived of World History, dumped into extra Chem and Physics classes and assigned to catch up with the Soviets and make the principal’s reputation. From our point of view, being considered Smart Kids meant only that we were excluded from the Popular Kids.
Furthermore: Were Jews actually “white” in the early 1960s? According to my first black girlfriend, “Almost.” But we imagined we were…
Episode 5. Defeat.
Well, a few years passed and another fight — in the near part of Parkway Village where they wanted you to keep off the grass. We’d start unlawful touch football games until the low-level monitors turned up and threatened my friends with evicting their families.
While my best friend was Chinese, it didn’t help me when that Peter Xi — a grade ahead of us, a brilliant athlete and a nasty kid altogether — pinned me to the earth. Of all the fights, this might have been the one when I was most at a disadvantage, where I was unambiguously defeated. Don’t remember how I got out of that one.
In the last would-be fight that I’ll talk about there was at least the possibility of a fist-fest with my friend Billy Stirling. Well, that’s what I still considered him. We’d been friends for a year or two at my elementary school P.S. 117, Miss Tamah Axel, Principal.
One-Seventeen, keep her mem’ry green
In whatever work we are do—ing
And we’ll remember the days that we sang in praise
Of our school…
But then, maybe the following year, we had a fight — i.e., an argument — that unexpectedly for me became nasty. Not long after that he rode over to my block on his bike and stopped in front of Stuie Weitzman’s (Stuie later hit it big in women’s shoes), where kids on the block gathered and played punchball in the street. Billy’s ankle was in a cast.
He spouted considerable hostility toward me and finally rode off. Sheila, my sister’s age, said “That boy is really angry and really wants to beat you up!” I dismissed this saying, “No, we’re pretty good friends.”
Fate did not get around to scheduling that fight. The friendship faded and soon we reached junior high. By this time we had different sets of friends, different statuses. As it turns out I was asked to tutor him in Spanish. And somehow I knew — or was told — that Billy’s father was in jail for grand larceny! Once or twice a week I’d go to his family’s apartment across the street from the school and tutor away.
This was an altogether different relationship. I had a greater status because I was doing the tutoring as opposed to needing it. And furthermore, his family being Catholic whereas mine was non-observant Jewish had by this time become a barrier… Perhaps by now there were stereotypic assumptions being made…
After a while we played the board game Sorry! I still loved games, won almost every time I played any board game, and a changed relationship was not adequate reason to pass up an opportunity to play. At Sorry! we were equals, as we’d been a few years back. But there was no avoiding the clear truth that we were on different tracks now. I was recognized as the smart one, I, they said, was going places. And who, now, was Billy?
So, first of all, it made some sense that the fight with Billy didn’t quite happen. It was the end of a chapter or a stage… Whatever forces had made those friendships — and brought about those fights — no longer worked. Something beyond those old motivators was needed to crank the engine of adolescent growth…
And just in time, new forces came into play, just as the universe’s cooling temperature a millisecond after the Big Bang allowed newly evolved forces to operate and immediately create unrecognizable change. Back in our Queens enclave the new forces demonstrated how class and status — where do you fit in the power structure? — were going to shift and ultimately determine the position and capabilities of adults, and to a large extent their quality of life. The fight over these crucial elements, in all forms — physical as well as ideological and economic, and sweeping up tens of millions of individuals — had been going on for hundreds, thousands of years and over several continents…
The “Alans” with their leather jackets, wavy hair slicked back and big dull knives would not — in adulthood — be cutting a dashing figure. Their stance as rebels faded first to an attractive image, then to phoniness. Alan’s job as an assistant at the grocer might have been cool, kind of grown-up, at first — and a novelty to the girls — but it was a rut he would struggle to climb out of in the years after high school. On the other hand, most of the non-Alans dismissed, in those days, as nerds and losers did okay, most of them, once it came to a white collar job in the business world and later in the Silicon Valleys of their dreams. A number of these proved to be actual rebels — iconoclasts and revolutionaries, unintimidated by the culture of coolness. Indeed, some of them re-defined what was cool. The lights had changed, changed again, and so had the landscape.
So what was the significance then, of these fights? Did they have any impact on the thrust of our later lives? Or were these just entertainments? Was anything learned about — if not the “wrongness” then at least the undesirability of fighting, aggression, ultimately, war? We’re sometimes told, as adults, about the need, the essentialness of Peace, and the centrality of this need — never mind its perpetual elusiveness, like the ever-receding green light at the end of Gatsby’s pier…
But perhaps these fights have taught us that we can live and manage to function, with difficulty, without achieving such an underlying need, without achieving the better world that we may strive for. If we’ve latterly learned about the importance of negotiation and the need for diplomacy, perhaps it was to avoid having to go to fists. Maybe it’s a reinterpretation of our childhood fights and posturing that has let us see the hollowness of macho culture. I like to believe we’ve learned something.
Well, our childhood fights link to Right Now. Right Now we have seemingly endless wars, in and around the Mideast, triggered in part by the same kind of nonchalant semi-obliviousness that put me in danger with Alan, like some asshole burning a Koran, a kind of clumsiness and failure of understanding in Bush’s case, not to mention his mendacity and mean-spiritedness. And there is a kind of ‘war’ — severe, reckless, with wild polarization — in our governing institutions and with our own people against each other, between races, between classes and between even the individuals in our families who claim or proclaim that “Family” is all-important.
So, the childhood fights were a sort of education of the streets…
Alan’s Knife taught me you can stumble into trouble if you don’t watch out, but that the other guy’s threats don’t always pan out so you might get away with it anyway.
The Ice-Fight teaches me there are no do-overs, permanent damage cannot be wished away and you wind up with a history.
Rock-Throwing at Girls reveals that a very slight miscalculation or mischance can blind or maim, justice notwithstanding. Religion was incidental to, or not a factor in the rock-throwing. But it hasn’t taken very long to see how the slightest difference in religion can be used to whip things up and blind both adversaries and ourselves to the need for care in confronting beings as woundable as ourselves.
Ned’s Hole-in-the-Head shows that blame goes by reputation, not by whose hands are dirty or clean.
Ned’s Brick illustrates that a half-assed response, deserved or not, can escalate² a conflict instantly. Think how Ariel Sharon triggered the Al-Aqsa Intifada in 2000 — and got himself elected Prime Minister — by ascending the Temple Mount (with 1000 riot police and soldiers).
The Peter Xi Fight (Episode 5) shows that sometimes you are going to be defeated. Accept it. Still, maybe you can say, like Han Solo at the end of The Empire Strikes Back, “There’ll come another day.”
The Billy Stirling Fight — and non-fight — shows that with a little diplomacy and luck — mostly not jumping in just because the other party provokes you — you can avoid a fight or war, and in future when the circumstances are utterly changed, you might be allies or friends.
1. A housemaid or children’s nurse, especially in East Asia and Southeast Asia.
2. Bonus Insight: Playing victim in front of the perpetrator doesn’t reliably produce remorse.
© Jerry Kurtz 2016