Thirteen is a hellish year. I don’t understand why evolution didn’t just let us skip from twelve straight to fourteen. Twelve is really cool. You’re a sixth grader in grammar school (as they called it when I was a boy), the oldest and biggest of all the kids. Everyone respected you. At fourteen, you were a year into adolescence, beginning to be comfortable with it (overlooking, of course, the pimples and the squeaky voice). But thirteen? At thirteen, you were all of a sudden among the smallest at your junior high school, the one everyone picked on. You were the object of pranks. (Hey, you! Take this left-handed eraser to the office and bring back a right-handed one.) And, you got no respect. I found this out the hard way.
“Get off the grass you little shit!” A simultaneous push in the chest accompanied this demand and, while it didn’t hurt, was none too gentle. I was too surprised to be scared, even by his intimidating size and the look on his face.
“What are you?” he went on, “one of those dumb-ass little B-Scrubs? Do you see this?” He swept his arm in an arc, taking in the whole grassy commons where I’d apparently trespassed. “All this is off limits to Scrubs and Spaghetti Slingers; it’s for Dishwashers only. Now get out of here before I pound you!”
As I walked away from the confrontation I puzzled over what he’d said. Not the “Get off the grass you little shit!” part; that was clear enough. But what were B-Scrubs? Who were the Spaghetti Slingers and the Dishwashers?
This was my first-day introduction to seventh grade at Van Nuys Junior High School and I apparently had a lot to learn. I’d done fifth and sixth grades at Campbell Hall School, an expensive private school that we could afford due to my father’s salary as a top-rated LA newscaster. But he was dead now and the money no longer flowed. The first thing to go was Campbell Hall, with its 200 or so students and quiet, genteel atmosphere. With 1500 students, Van Nuys Junior High was anything but genteel and survival was the order of the day.
It didn’t take me long to learn how to survive: blend in, don’t make waves and stay alert, much the same set of tactics I used to survive Air Force basic training years later. I found out that B-Scrubs were the first semester seventh graders. Second semester seventh graders became Educated Scrubs. Eighth graders were Spaghetti Slingers and Educated Spaghetti Slingers and at the top of the food chain were the ninth grade Dishwashers and Educated Dishwashers. This was certainly not Campbell Hall. If there’d been any grade labels there, they would have been along the lines of interns, managers and executives.
At VNJH there was a flag-raising ceremony every morning at 8:00 with students standing at attention in our classrooms while the national anthem played over the PA system. This was followed by the Pledge of Allegiance. Bank Day was every Wednesday when we dutifully deposited our nickels and dimes in some kind of school savings bank. I hated shop (“You’ll never be any good with your hands, David!” my mother used to tell me regularly—and she was right.) I hated the day in gym where all the boys had to strip to our skivvies in order to be weighed. Embarrassed, none of us knew where to look, other than casting furtive glances at the other guys. I refused to participate in the experiment in the class on electricity that sent a shock through everyone holding hands in a circle.
One of the sillier things we boys tried for a while was to look up a girl’s skirt by attaching a small mirror to one of our shoes, usually with glue, which didn’t do the shoe much good and didn’t make our parents too happy. Then we’d find a girl to talk to. The girls all wore dresses back then and as we were talking to Cynthia or Marilyn or Eleanor we slyly (at least we thought we were being sly) slid the shoe with the mirror forward, trying to position it between the girl’s feet. Then, the theory was, we could look in the mirror and up her dress. But there were some obvious problems with that, problems we could never overcome. For one thing, it was hard to keep the mirror on the shoe, even with glue. And then the mirror had to be positioned just right, and it never was; we were constantly sliding the mirror-foot all over. Nor was easy to be subtle about this. Naturally enough, people are going to notice that you have a mirror on your shoe, particularly once the girls figured out what was happening (and that didn’t take long!) Add to that the fact that it was hard enough for some of us to talk to a girl under ordinary circumstances. Now we were trying to talk while at the same time positioning our foot in an advantageous spot, hoping she wouldn’t change position. And if we did happen to succeed, the girl would quickly realize she was no longer engaged in a face-to-face conversation but rather a face-to-the-top-of-the-boy’s-head conversation. We boys would have had better luck simply going around and asking girls to hike up their dresses.
In a school that size, 1500 walking examples of raging hormones, it was inevitable that there would be fights. There was even a designated off-campus area for fights: “The Garage”. It stood behind an abandoned house a block from school and out of sight from the street. I knew this not because I used to go and watch fights there—I didn’t—but I’d heard about it. Worse, I got an “invitation” to fight a kid there after school one day. I’ve never cared for fighting, neither then nor now; I’d rather walk than fight. Too bad. A month after the start of school I found myself in a situation where I was going to have to fight, not walk.
There were a couple of gangs at VNJH, one of “Negroes,” the “polite” term in use then, and one of Mexican-Americans, “Greasers” or “Beaners,” the anything-but-polite terms in use then. These weren’t gangs in the sense we understand them today; they were considered gangs simply because they banded together, being excluded by white students from their groups.
Like most of the boys at VNJH, Tony wore his pomaded jet-black hair swept up into a flowing pompadour with a duck ass in the back, more commonly known as a DA. Tony was part of the Mexican-American gang. Their attire was pretty standard: tight jeans with very narrow, turned-up cuffs, black, high-top Keds, and a white tee. On cooler days they all wore black leather jackets with the collar turned up. What set Tony apart, though, was his size: he was probably the smallest guy in school.
He and his gang would often walk around the school grounds at lunch, showing off and seeing if they could intimidate other kids. On this particular day I’d just finished lunch and was walking over to a garbage can to throw away the crusts of my sandwich (“Eat those crusts, David!” I can remember Mom saying. “It’s where the vitamins and minerals are.” Turns out she was right.), when Tony, who served as point man for the gang, shoved me from behind. I turned around and yelled something at him, simultaneously recognizing just who it was I was yelling at. But it was too late. He pushed me again and I pushed back. Just then the bell rang and a teacher started to hurry over to find out what was going on. I’m saved! I thought to myself. Not so fast. “I’ll see you after school in The Garage,” Tony snarled, “And you better be there!” There it was, my invitation.
I’d only ever been in two fights and neither one amounted to much, nothing more than a prolonged scuffle with a couple of punches thrown. They certainly didn’t give me any confidence that I could acquit myself with Tony or anyone else. And of course his gang would be there to back him up. Worse, I knew a lot of other kids, including some of my friends, would be there—word of a fight gets around fast. So, by 2:45 I’d be in a fight and by 2:50 I’d have the crap kicked out of me.
I hated the thought of my friends watching me get pummeled almost as much as I hated the mental picture I had of me being pummeled. There was not only the physical pain I was going to have to endure, there was the humiliation of facing the whole school (or so it seemed to me) the next day and everyone knowing I’d been beaten up, and by the smallest boy in school. Even so, I knew I’d feel far worse if I didn’t show up. There was no way out.
The rest of that school day was an agony of anxiety. Kids I didn’t even know kept coming up to me and asking if it was true. “Are you really going to fight Tony?” Some were impressed when I confirmed the rumor. Most just looked at me and shook their heads, whether in sympathy or scorn I didn’t know. You’re gonna get creamed! was the most common reaction.
Finally, the bell rang and school let out, although I thought of it more as the beginning of Round One, and probably the only round. I made my way, slowly and alone, to The Garage, its deteriorating condition matching my confidence level. Tony was already there with his gang, what today we’d call his “posse,” all relaxed, laughing and joking. A lot of other kids were there, too, most of whom I didn’t know or recognize. Most of them were letting Tony know they were backing him, that they expected him to really pound me. As if I needed to be reminded. I looked around one more time and finally found a friendly face, David Beaman. His worried look didn’t reassure me.
I’d never been in this kind of situation before and I wasn’t sure what the protocol was, what I was supposed to do. Were there formalities? Preliminaries? Some kind of ritual to go through? I left the first move to Tony, figuring he’s probably been in dozens of fights and knew what to do. I took my place in the center of the garage and waited, hands non-aggressively hanging by my sides. Surprisingly, I wasn’t focused on the fight. My mind did what my body couldn’t: it left The Garage and started thinking about what was happening on the Spin and Marty episode that would air later on the Mickey Mouse Club and what we’d be having for dinner and did I remember to bring my homework.
Eventually Tony, still wearing his black leather jacket and his smirk, left his friends, strutted over to where I stood and faced me. An immediate and palpable silence settled over the ringside crowd, broken only when Tony said, “You ready?”
“Yeah, I’m ready.” I was relieved my voice didn’t crack.
“So whatchyu waitin’ for?”
“Well, go ahead, do something!”
“Uh-uh, you start it.”
“I ain’t gonna start it. You start it.”
“Not me. You start it.”
“No, man! I started it already at lunch. It’s your turn now.”
There was an awkward silence of maybe half a minute as Tony and I engaged in a stare down and I suddenly realized that in spite of all his bravado and his hands up like a boxer and his gang behind him, he didn’t want to fight any more than I did. As small as he was, I could probably at least wrestle him to a standoff. Tony knew his friends wouldn’t let him lose or get hurt, but he didn’t want the embarrassment of needing their help, just as I didn’t want the humiliation of losing. I seized on this ray of hope.
“Man, if we’re not gonna fight, I’m leaving.”
“You can’t leave! We gotta fight!”
“Well, go ahead and start it.”
“No, you start it.”
About then I became aware of some derisive snickering behind me, of some of the kids beginning to leave, figuring there would be no fight and not wanting to be found there by any teachers who may have gotten word of it, an automatic suspension. The tension immediately dissolved. The moment had passed.
I don’t remember what happened after that. Did I leave as quickly as I could? Did I wait for Tony to leave first? Did I talk to anyone? Did anyone talk to me? I do know I felt relieved, relieved that I hadn’t backed down and even more relieved that there had been no fight. I felt as if I’d passed a test. And I was able to face the whole school the next day.
There were other occasions, other incidents in my thirteenth year that proved that adulthood and maturity weren’t yet knocking at my door. One of those involved a near catastrophic experience.
One Saturday Mom dropped me off at the house of a friend while she ran some errands. He wasn’t home, however, so I went to a nearby park to look for him. On my way, I cut through a large piece of land being readied for development. It had been cleared of trees and anything else that had been there; several pieces of heavy equipment were scattered around the site.
As I walked by I caught sight of a road grader off to my left. Not being in any particular hurry, I detoured and walked over to it, fascinated by its size, its power and, most of all, by all the levers and pedals. I climbed up into the seat, grabbed hold of some of the levers and started pretending that I was driving it. That’s when the fun started. Somehow, something I pushed, pulled or stepped on started the grader and the engine roared to life. Worse, the huge machine lurched forward and started moving slowly, inexorably, toward the very busy four-lane boulevard I’d been walking along just a few minutes earlier. Not knowing what else to do, I panicked. I pulled more levers, tromped on more pedals, all to no effect—the road grader continued on its slow, steady path to destruction. I was beginning to feel like Flash Gordon trapped by Ming the Merciless in The Room with the Creeping Wall which was moving relentlessly across the floor to crush Flash and send him to his doom. The road grader was my wall, creeping relentlessly across the field to my doom.
Cars continued speeding by, oblivious to the unfolding calamity. Seventy-five yards, fifty yards, twenty-five yards and I started crying. I thought about jumping off but I didn’t. I felt I should stay there and continue trying to stop or at least turn the machine. Nor was I sure I could even get off without being crushed under the grader’s giant wheels.
Finally, a man driving by saw what was happening: a huge road grader now maybe fifteen yards from the road and a panicked thirteen-year-old boy sitting in the cab. He screeched to a halt. Jumping out of his car, he ran over to the machine but didn’t waste time trying to get into the cab. Instead, he was able to reach up into the open engine compartment and yank out some wires. They must have been the right ones because the engine sputtered once and went quiet. The machine stopped. Dr. Zarkov had arrived in time to save Flash.
Meanwhile, I lost no time in bailing out the other side of the cab and taking off as fast as I could, the guy yelling at me to come back. Not a chance! Naturally, when I hooked up with my friend, I bragged about my “cool adventure” and we both laughed.
Looking back, survival of the fittest certainly couldn’t be applied to thirteen-year-olds—but we survived anyway.
No one makes it to adulthood without first being thirteen, an obvious truth but a relevant one. It’s an age that marks the fine line between dependence and independence and events in our lives begin to take on greater significance. Sometimes the lessons embedded in those events don’t become apparent until years later. When I reached that fine line, two events in particular provided life lessons for me. The first was my father’s suicide and the subsequent total realigning of my life. I learned about coping with grief, about reduced circumstances, about pulling up roots and moving unexpectedly, A second event was moving to Mexico, where I would spend the next several years in a Mexican school. There were many lessons there, among the most important: I was adaptable—I coped with the change seamlessly. That adaptability has served me well over the years.
Even the relatively trivial events described above provided lessons, although, as I mentioned, they did not become apparent until many years later. Perhaps the most important lesson was looking back and seeing, understanding, that I faced up to my fears in the non-fight with Tony. I could have backed out, not shown up at The Garage, but I felt, however vaguely, that there was a principle involved, that even getting “creamed,” as so many students assured me was my fate, was preferable to not showing up and facing the looks, taunts, and jeers sure to come my way the next day.
I didn’t see this at the time. All I knew was that I’d escaped, rather than backed out of, a confrontation that could have carried with it unhappy emotional, psychological, and physical consequences. That’s what mattered then.
As for the road grader, on the one hand it exposed an immaturity natural to a thirteen-year-old pretending to be a man in control of a huge machine. But again, as I look back, I can see a principle at work here, as well. I could have jumped and run, leaving the road grader to possibly wreak untold havoc on the nearby highway. But I felt that because I was responsible for starting the machine on its path, I had an obligation to do everything I could to stop it. I don’t know what I would have done if Dr. Zarkov hadn’t arrived. Would I finally have jumped and run? Probably. But fortunately, he did arrive and then I could jump and run.
If I had to do it over, I’d definitely skip from twelve to fourteen.
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