Chapter 3: Trouble in Paradise

All was not always well in Hartford. As soon as Willy started kindergarten, older boys found it entertaining to torment him. His very first hostile encounter occurred when one of those antagonists scratched two small holes in the dirt. He then announced that he was going to show Billy that he did not know his ass from a hole in the ground.

He pointed to the one on the right and announced, "This's a hole in the ground." "This," he continued, pointing to the other, "is your ass."

Then, he asked Billy, "Now, where's your ass?"

Billy, trying to be accommodating and demonstrating that he could follow instructions, of course pointed to the left pit. This produced paroxysms of raucous laughter among the small assembly of onlookers. The correct answer was to point to one's rear end. Billy had to ask around for weeks to discover this. No one wanted to spoil the moment. It also forever branded him as a dummy among the bully crowd.

The bullying did not always stick just to taunting. Billy was always taller...and skinnier...than his classmates and was forced by extreme nearsightedness inherited from his father to wear very thick glasses...the kind that make your eyes look small and beady.

I wore those glasses since I was very young. In the “good old days,” this qualified me as handicapped and thus teasible. That was before more seriously impaired people were “main-streamed” as they are today.

SkinnyThis was seen as a challenge to the littler...and tougher...kids. They often singled him out for a beating. His eyesight grew progressively worse as he grew, as did his gangly, nerdy look. By eighth grade, he was nearly 6'1" tall, but weighed a very wispy 125. The bullying grew heavier and coarser. However, along with his rapid growth, the onset of testosterone had infused his system with a strength he neither recognized nor had ever utilized in defense or for much of anything else.

To give you some idea of just how skinny this is, I was able...by sucking in my belly...to wrap my two hands entirely around my waist. As they say, I was so skinny, my eyes were in single file...

Until one day when he was in sixth grade. On that day, a very short and very tough kid punched him right between the eyes, breaking his glasses at the bridge. Blinded and in extreme pain, Billy went postal, screaming and charging his very surprised adversary. Before either really knew what had happened, Billy had forced him to the ground and was sitting astride his chest, pummeling him mercilessly with both hands until he broke out crying, the ultimate indignity for a bully. This was the day that Billy became "Bill"...just plain Bill.

As soon as the defeated persecutor could escape, he ran away to find his older brother. However, Bill, reveling in his new-found strength and courage, did not retreat but rather waited in ambush for the two of them to return. Then he administered the same treatment to the older brother, forcing him to run away crying as well. Finally, the two of them returned with their adult oldest brother and Bill, brave but not stupid, chose to retreat in victory.

After that, the victim became the bully. Seeking out and attacking each of his former enemies one by one, he became the terror of the playground and the neighborhood. One of those former adversaries was the boy who delivered the Milwaukee Journal newspaper each afternoon to Bill's home. One afternoon, as the paper boy rode by on his bike, Bill sprang from hiding, chased him down...he was getting fast as well as strong...and took his bicycle away from him. The kid ran away immediately, since he had already heard about the previous incidents, abandoning his bike. Riding it to the school, Bill climbed to the top of the fire escape, which went all the way to the third floor...still carrying the bike...and dropped it, smashing both wheels and the frame. He left the debris behind and returned home triumphantly.

Bill's parents quickly heard about this act of vengeance. Word travels very fast in a town the size of Hartford. They decided it was high time to teach him some ethics about fighting and brutality.

Katherine, at the supper table, "I heard you beat up on our paper boy and destroyed his bicycle today."

"That's true." he admitted sheepishly but a little proudly as well.

"So..." she continued, "...you think you're pretty tough, right?"

"I guess that's true too." Bill said with a grin.

"Well here's something you should think about." interposed Casey. "That kid earned every penny to pay for that bike. As I recall, you got yours as a gift."

"That's right," continued Mom, "his family can't afford to be giving their kids expensive gifts. Every one of them works and there are...how many is it?...I think eight."

As I recall, this was my very first lesson in humility. I immediately saw the logic to what my parents were telling me and felt deeply ashamed. Having been on the receiving end of stupid brutality, I now realized that the “other side” wasn’t such a nice place either.

Bill worked too, but he was able to save almost everything he earned, since his every childhood wish was otherwise satisfied at Dad's store. Another revenue source at his father's store, besides sundries and food, was film development and printing. His first job, at the age of ten, was drying, sorting and packaging finished prints in the dark dingy basement of his father's store. He was paid 25 cents an hour. That was how he bought the paperboy his new bicycle, from money he had saved from that job. The bike cost 25 dollars, so it would take a hundred hours of past labor's worth of his carefully saved cash to right his wrong.

"What you have to do," said Dad, "is go to the bank and withdraw as much as it takes from your savings and buy him a new bike. And I mean, right away."

Bill was about to object, when Mom added, "We don't want to hear any arguments on this subject. Do you understand?"

Bill not only understood, but after shamefacedly carrying out his parent's wishes and presenting the paper boy with a new Schwinn, his career as a bully was brought to an sudden and early end.

What didn't end was something else Bill learned from that episode. It is FUN to be a rebel, to be a little outside conventional behavior standards. By the time he was twelve, he was stealing cigars...Swisher Sweets...an abominable tobacco product that cost a dime apiece at the time, from his parent's store and passing them around to his friends to experiment with and to boost his standing. His newfound rebelliousness had attracted a number of other kids to his circle...Katherine called them his "band of hangers-on". Plus, he found that others regarded his great knowledge of astronomy almost as fascinating as he did. A group of them would gather at one of the local playgrounds at night, lie on the teeter-totters, light up their cigars and Bill would point out some of the wonders of the universe.

By that time I had become deeply enamored with astronomy and had read every book in the library on the subject, including a college level text I would later encounter in my very first teaching gig. So I could identify constellations, major stars and all the visible planets in the sky. This duly impressed my cigar smoking buddies. And...the summer sky IS beautiful!

At the time sky-glow...the inevitable light pollution that now washes out the night sky...was relatively dim. Hartford had not yet installed the brilliant mercury vapor streetlights that now illuminate our cities' streets. That meant that many of the fainter wonders of the universe, now invisible, could be readily observed, like the milky way, our parent galaxy and Andromeda, our nearest neighboring galaxy.

He lectured, "There is Betelgeuse, a red giant star, in the belt of the constellation Orion. Over there is Sirius, a much hotter blue giant star, also called the Dog Star. That's the milky way, our very own galaxy." not to mention all the constellations of the Zodiac as they appeared one-by-one overhead throughout the year.

Did you know that we are all made of star dust? Relatively large and short lived stars…the blue giants…have nuclear reactions that produce all the heavier elements that make life possible, like, silicon and iron, while stars like our own make nothing heavier than carbon. When these giant stars explode at the end of their lives, producing gigantic nova, they also spread these heavy elements far and wide. Then smaller stars, like ours, collect this dust, gravity coalesces it and…lo and behold…a few billion years later, here we are!

There were other things to steal from the store, for example, comic books and candy, staples of every kid's existence during the forties. Wine and hard liquor were also sold there, and it wasn't long before an occasional bottle of Mogen David...hard spirits were a little extreme for youngsters...disappeared from the shelves and was being shared by Bill and his friends. One bottle of fortified wine would get a sizeable group of twelve year olds VERY sloshed. The use of alcoholic beverages by youth in Wisconsin was tolerated much more than it is today and considerably more so than in neighboring states. So, even though many adults were aware of their youthful adventures in drug use, nobody made much of a fuss about it.

In fact, when Bill would baby-sit as a teenager, his hosts would always make sure there were a couple of beers in the fridge. When he went out to the country bars, he was seldom asked for ID, but had some fake stuff just in case.

When he was only fifteen, he was asked to join the Veterans of Foreign Wars Drum and Bugle corps. He looked old for his age and they needed extra bodies, so they taught him to play the baritone bugle. They supplied the bugle, but he had to pay for the slick bright green uniform...complete with a contrasting green sash...and fancy hat. He loved his look in a uniform.

The forte of that group was actually doing intricate marching drills, for which they frequently won the statewide tournament for such groups. They also got invited to many county fairs, which allowed Bill, among other things, to be served beer without question. After all he was part of a group of what was supposed to all be military veterans.

BasketballFortunately, Bill's height attracted attention from the local coaches. He was coaxed into learning how to play basketball, and when he reached high school, athletics began to take a lot of his spare time, giving him less time to get in trouble. Class work was still easy for him, so he concentrated in building his reflexes and timing. He went out for football, basketball and track during the school year, baseball and golf during the summer.

His father had taught him golf and a mentor showed him elementary basketball skills, but what really lit his fires was track and field, in particular the shot put.

When he turned out for track as a freshman, coach asked him, "What events do you want to compete in?"

"I suppose the high jump and broad jump, but what I really want to do is throw the shot put."

ShotputThe coach's eyebrows raised. Bill's weight had increased to 140, but at 6'2" he was still quite skinny. "Wouldn't you rather run, say, the quarter mile or some longer races? Besides, it's called 'putting the shot', you know, you 'put' that heavy ball of lead."

"No, that's really what I want to do." he said with finality.

Bill's idol, a handsome athlete named Tony Stracka, who had been a star athlete when Bill was in grade school, held the school record in that event and, although he felt that he would never be as good looking as Tony, who resembled Johnny Weismueller of Tarzan fame, he knew he was going to be as large, and hopefully as strong.

The coach said, "There's no accounting for tastes, I guess." and nodded to Bill that it was O.K. with him, if that's what he wanted to do. He walked away shaking his head and saying under his breath, "Another flea crawling up the elephant's ass with intentions of rape."

But, good food...that ice cream again...and lots of exercise increased Bill's weight to 220 by his junior year and he achieved at least one of his athletic goals. He set the school record in the shot put...50' 1/2"...eclipsing the former record by 2 1/2 inches.

In the other sports, he kept improving and made the varsity teams as a starter, but was never any real kind of star in those sports. Then during his junior year, that all came to an abrupt end. One of the skills he had learned on the side was picking locks. During the winter, on weekends, he used this talent to open the doors of the high school, locked up tight on week ends. Then he would open the cage in the gymnasium to free the basketballs so local kids could scrimmage. Since he was on the high school team, he often did not stay around and participate. One weekend, this activity was busted by the local cops.

All the players were questioned, but none gave him up to the school officials. Instead, one kid, the son of the top local attorney and known as a “bad boy,” actually confessed under intense pressure to having done it!

Lesson two in humility. It had never occurred to me that someone else could take the rap for something I did.  My parents had inculcated a sense of honor in me and I certainly did not think it was honorable to let something like this pass without doing something to right it.

When Bill heard this, he couldn't let it rest there. It was one thing to do prohibited deeds, quite another to let someone else take the blame for it. It took some doing...he had to demonstrate his clandestine skills to convince them...but Bill eventually set things straight to the chagrin of his teachers, his parents and his coaches.

Shortly thereafter, the principal, a staid individual who showed up for school each day wearing his Yale pin on a three piece suit, called Bill into the office.

"I'm going to give you a simple choice. After your latest stunt, you can either take an extra course and graduate this year...or...you can go to jail."

Bill wasn't sure that the latter was a real threat or just a prediction. This was actually a tougher choice than it sounds like. Bill was still growing bigger and stronger. He felt he had a chance at breaking the national shot put record with another year of work and growth under his belt.

But, after some hesitation he succumbed to reason and took the graduation "plea bargain." Next, the principal said that it wouldn't be fair for him to push down others in the class ranking since he was joining their class so belatedly, so would he agree to accept a duplicate position without telling any of the others in his new class? As far as any college was concerned, his actual rank would be reported, but the others would maintain their current positions.

"Sure," he agreed, "Why not?"

"Then that's settled."

"By the way, what will my rank be?" he asked as an afterthought.

"One." replied the Yalie in the three piece suit.

Bill did have one other adventure that year after graduation. He was nominated for and sent to Badger Boy's State...the mascot of the state of Wisconsin is the badger...a statewide gathering of juniors in high school who had excelled at academics or extra-curricular activities or both. It was actually a rather dull affair held on the campus of the University of Wisconsin. The students stayed in the dormitories and attended various functions during the day. However, Bill met and befriended the faction from the city of Kenosha, Wisconsin, who were the "bad boys" of the gathering. They all got together at night, somehow procured some beer and partied into the night, disturbing the other participants and especially the overseers. In their drunken reverie, they had a cow mooing contest...or rather, a cow bellowing contest.

The next day, they were brought before a "court" on charges of disturbing the peace. Bill was elected defense attorney. Their defense was, "How can anyone in this agricultural state be so upset at the sounds of the gentle lowing of cattle?" The jury liked this and they were all acquitted.

Kenosha is a small beautiful upper middle class city situated about half way between Milwaukee and Chicago on the electric rapid transit rail line. After Boy's State, several of the boys he had met invited him to visit them there.

It turns out that Kenosha...at least in legend...is "mobbed up." That is, it was reputed to be the home of several mobsters from both of its neighboring big cities. Bill saw nothing to dispute this. A couple of his acquaintances carried guns and, despite their comfortable living circumstances, engaged in some very risky behavior. Bill tried not to show it, but he was really quite anxious about what was happening.

To say I was “anxious” about people packing heat is the understatement of the year. I actually broke out in a cold sweat the first time I encountered a pistol tucked casually into a waste band. The events below were in many ways “life altering”...

One day, as the group was walking down the street, one of the kids said, "Let's take off the Seven-Eleven."

"What do you mean?" asked Bill warily.

"You know. One of us will keep the clerk busy while the rest fill up our pockets with stuff. I'll grab some beer. Why don't you get the chips, Bill?

He reluctantly agreed and they all went to the local convenience store. What had been said about "keeping the clerk busy" amounted to sticking a gun in his face and demanding that he empty the till. When this was over, everyone ran off to a local park, and consumed the ill gotten gains, except the gun wielder, who went off with all the money. Everyone seemed to treat this all like a normal summer day. Bill was freaked.

The next day, the cops made a "visit" to the home where Bill was staying, but apparently the participating boys were quite used to this and easily turned them away. Bill, however, was not used to this at all. The whole visit scared the hell out of him. He was very glad to return to the relative safety of Hartford and spent the rest of that summer playing golf and swimming.

This was not the first and hardly the last time I escaped from turmoil into physical activity. High school athletics, besides hopefully presenting an entry into the world of Big Time Sports, also always calmed me down. Those hormones that were calling to me to chase the difficult-to-conquer girls of my teenage era, were quieted by yet another few hours of basketball practice or putting the shot.

Now, as I age not so gracefully...a small heart attack having afflicted me about ten years ago...I still get "high" from exercise. Not only does it zone me out, but the aftereffects are simply marvelous. It's a cliché that one is only as old as one feels, but regular exercise makes it come true, at least for me.