(With apologies to Ernesto Che Guevara)
By Dan Moyes
September 2, 2019
I felt strong, bold, and happy; on top of the world as I rode along; new feelings for me. It felt so good I laughed out loud, long and hard, glad there was no one around on the country road to hear me or to stop me. This was a total and welcome change for me. May I tell you how I got there?
I had moved from middle school to high school in the fall of 1964. I was blessed to at least be able to avoid the school bus as I lived where a limited driving license was available to 14-year olds. As the year wore on, I came to dread school every day. Not for the school work or the teachers or even the principal, but for the extra-curricular abuse that I always got. The clique of “cool” boys my age and a bit older would be waiting for me in the hallway before class and between classes. Sometimes the end of the day was the worst. They would wait in ambush where I had to pass, four or five of them at a time. Sometimes near the door to the parking lot where I had to go to get to my 50cc motor scooter, parked amongst a sea of nearly-new Impalas, Furies, Mustangs, and shiny 4-wheel-drive pickups.
In nice weather, the gang would probably be waiting outside where there was even less chance of any school authority seeing or hearing what they threw at me. I often lost my cap or my bookbag. Sometimes my glasses wound up on the floor or the ground often bent out of shape and scratched. My shirts were torn, sweaters stretched. My flabby biceps were often sore from the “slugs” I took. My ears would ring from being slapped. Sometimes my shins pulsed in pain from hard cowboy-boot or penny-loafer encased kicks. It was hell.
The clique was made up of a half-dozen boys between 15 and 17 years old; Gary was the worst. He was the ringleader at 17 to my 14 years of age. Our school was a small one: Three-hundred students total, spread across all four years of high school. Gary was a senior. I was a lowly freshman. There were other reasons I was targeted. I was, perhaps, the lowliest of the freshmen.
It seemed I could do nothing right. My grades were good; perhaps too good. I didn’t have the physique of an athlete. I had never been good at ball sports — the mark of a “real” young man in our community. My eyes were poor. When I was twelve I was diagnosed with severe myopia and astigmatism. I always chose a classroom seat at the front of the room where I had learned I could read the blackboard. I hadn’t been able to play sports well when younger because I couldn’t see the ball. Trying to play baseball, I’d be in the outfield; I’d hear the guys yell and I’d look up and around. And a ball would fall out of nowhere onto the ground near me. Or hit me in the face. I was such a poor player I sat out most games — often not chosen for any team. Glasses corrected my vision, but by then it was too late for me to develop the skills that most boys had. My near vision was fine even before glasses. Since I couldn’t play sports I learned to sit in the shade and read. I found comfort in food. When I started the first grade, I had been the shortest and lightest child in my class. By the end of the third grade, I was the tallest and heaviest. At 14 I was 5’7” tall and weighed nearly 180 pounds. My unhealthy habits did not help my acne-ridden skin, either.
I was born the son of a “tenant” farmer. My father did not own the land he farmed. While we were never hungry he never made more than a living. My father was an excellent farmer, but an unlucky one, and perhaps not a very smart businessman. One year his efforts would produce a bounty crop of beans. That’s the year bean prices fell to near zero. The next year his corn would be taller than anyone’s and the harvest would exceed 200 bushels per acre when the average was less than 125 bushels. Corn, of course, would sell for a quarter a bushel that year. Maybe another year the main crop would be peas — a delicate plant. That’s the year a late June freeze would hit, killing most of the tender plants so that the harvest would be meager. Peas, that year, of course, would sell for record highs. At the end of each year, after the crops were all sold and the landlord took his share, there was always just enough left to survive the winter and start farming again in the spring. There was no way my parents were going to buy me a Chevelle SS or one of the new Mustangs. I had one pair of school shoes and only a couple pair of jeans. My shirts were generally long-sleeve work shirts unlike the neat button-down Arrow shirts of the cool clique, which were often worn over stylish knit dickies. We didn’t have a washer and dryer of our own, so my clothing suffered.
As my freshman year slowly ticked away the taunts did not stop. It seemed they became more frequent. Harder, faster, worse. I constantly heard:
“Hey, fat boy! Why’s the building shakin’? Oh, yeah, you’re walkin’.
Fatty. Porker. Fatso. Lard-ass.
Teacher’s pet — how’s her butt smell?
Well, if it ain’t Mr. Magoo!
Yo, speccy four eyes. Can you see the future through those jam jar bottoms?
Why’s your shirt so wrinkled? Don’t you have a mom to iron one for you, or is she too busy takin’ care of the mailman?
Did your parents have any children that lived?
Your father would be ashamed of you if you knew who he was.
Hey, three-inch wonder, you all alone again this weekend?”
The clique. The popular guys. Their families were richer. They were stronger. They were faster. They could play ball games. They were better looking and had better skin. They had cool cars and cash in their jeans and most of them smoked. Girls would talk to them in the halls. Unlike the boys, most of the girls were polite to me, but just barely, mostly not noticing my existence. If I sat at a lunch table with any of the girls in my class, they would suddenly remember they had to be somewhere else. Even the girls laughed when my books, papers, and glasses were scattered in the hallway between classes. How that hurt! At 14 I was living in a hormonal hell that I didn’t understand. Why did I care if the girls liked me, anyway? But I did care. I desperately wanted to be popular. I needed a friend. Every defeat at the hallway gauntlets seemed to shove me deeper into a dark hole that I did not know how to get out of. Sometimes I would cry on the way home; the wind from my 35 mph motor-scooter speed on the country roads pushing the tears back into my ears. At home, I slept a lot when I didn’t have farmwork that I had to do. Sometimes my homework wouldn’t get done, or at least not done well. Even then I generally got passing grades, often higher than I knew I deserved based on the effort I had put forth. I missed as many days of school to “illness” as I could and thought seriously of dropping out when I reached 16. My fear and funk only served as fuel to the taunters. All I could do was endure, it seemed.
It was early April. The harshest weather of the winter of ’64 and ’65 was behind us. Mild temperatures and a slight breeze chased a few fluffy clouds high across the sky. Even better, I had managed to get out of school and to my scooter without running the gauntlet for a change. There had been one ugly and painful time that day, just after second-period as I made my way between classes, but the harassment didn’t seem to be especially bad for a change. As I left the school parking lot I noted the mileage on my odometer and realized I would need to buy fuel on my way home. This meant riding a mile out of my way into the village where the Amoco station sat on the corner of Lenz Avenue and Main Street. The station had recently converted from full- to self-service. No problem. I’d top up my tank with a gallon or two of regular, pay my half-dollar and then be on my way home. Or, I’ve got an extra quarter, maybe I’ll have a soda before I go on my way. Damn, I could remember when that same soda was only a dime.
Sometimes this service station served as an unofficial after school hang-out for some of the high school kids. It depended on whether Amos, the owner or Danny, his 19-year-old son, was minding the store. Amos was gruff and would essentially chase everyone away after they bought their Coke and peanuts. Danny was one of the “cool” ones and would essentially hold court as guys told tall tales, usually sexual, and tried to top the others’ lies. Danny sometimes had a bottle of cheap rum hidden behind the counter and would add a bit to his friends’ Pepsis. Danny had been the Gary of his high school days. I liked Amos better. He never gave me a hard time.
My stomach dropped that day as I turned from Lenz onto Main. I could see the crowd gathered around the blue-white-and-red chest-style soda cooler between the front door and the service bay of the station, only twelve feet or so from the single pair of gas pumps on the exposed island.
Front and center, seated atop the soda cooler, was Gary. His entourage paying him rapt attention. To pull in there was worse than tempting fate. But I had no choice. I was low on fuel and there was no other source within reach of my reserve mileage. I stopped by the Regular gas pump, switched off the scooter, and dismounted.
“Hey, wimp!” I heard. It was Gary, and he was approaching me. His entourage, back at the soda cooler, were paying rapt attention.
His initial “greeting” was followed by, “Dunne, you worthless piece of dog shit, who gave you permission to be here?” spoken loudly. As he neared me he continued to call me and my family disrespectful, insulting names of all kinds rapidly strung together. Many of his words only had four letters in their root form. It seemed he’d never run out of foul, profane things to call me. I had to give him credit for imaginative use of the English language.
Under this barrage, I hung my head in shame as my small fuel tank filled. All the guys back at the cooler, nearly every one of the “cool” guys from Valley High School, were laughing, gesturing, and joining in with Gary in the name-calling. I was frightened, wondering if this attack was going to go beyond the hateful verbal attack to a physical beating. Time seemed to stand still. Would the bike’s tank NEVER be full?
Click. Just like that, the fuel nozzle shut off and the tank was full. Click. Just like that, I felt a sudden intake of breath. What’s that? Did I feel a cool and comforting breeze waft across me?
“Why?” I thought. “Why should I care? What does this mean to me? What will it matter in 100 years?” I felt a startling rush of relief and exhaled with ease. Seemingly, from a voice in my head, I heard, “It does NOT matter. It simply does not matter what Gary says, or thinks, or what his clique of cool guys hears, sees, thinks, or does.”
I cooly topped off the tank and hung up the hose, put the cap back onto the scooter’s tank and lowered the seat into place. I turned from my bike to Gary, drew myself up, looked him in the eye, shrugged my shoulders, and said firmly and loudly, “Hell, nobody’s perfect,” and walked past him toward the Amoco station office to pay. Gary stood stock still, his mouth hanging open. He turned his head toward the crowd around the cooler and gave them a “Do you believe that?” look.
And then it happened. A snicker, a guffaw, a suppressed laugh, then suddenly everyone was laughing. I stopped and turned, and laughed too. The crowd was laughing with me, not at me. Gary broke a grin and laughed. Approaching me, he put his arm around my shoulder, walking with me to the counter, and said, “Dunne, you’re alright.” I paid the $0.48 for my two gallons of gas, bought a Pepsi with a quarter from the chest cooler, and enjoyed it while I listened to the braggadocious stories from the guys. When the soda was gone, I bid all good evening, mounted my scooter, kick-started it, and rode home.
That had ended it. I was never again bullied or harassed at school. I learned how to care for my clothes and how to wear them better and my parents finally were able to buy a washer and dryer. My habits, my weight, and my skin improved. I learned to look anyone and everyone in the eye. I learned to stand up if challenged. I learned I had a gift for humor. I learned that girls like that. In the words of Billy Joel, I learned I could dance and still look tough anyway.
So, that’s how I got there. As I rode home that late afternoon I felt strong, bold, and happy; on top of the world. I laughed out loud, long and hard, glad there was no one around on the country road to hear me or to stop me.